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In A Recipe for Bees, Gail Anderson-Dargatz transforms the details of ordinary life into a richly textured portrait of an extraordinary marriage. The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your reading group's exploration of a novel that celebrates the wonders of nature, the magic of romance, and the endurance of love.
1. A Recipe for Bees is set in a rural Canadian farming community. Are the expectations about love and marriage different in an agricultural society than they are in an urban area? How are Augusta's and Karl's concepts of marriage shaped by the demands of life on a farm? In what ways does Augusta's life reflect the kind of life most women were once expected to lead?
2. Throughout the book, there are photographs of the author's family. Why did Anderson-Dargatz include them? Do they make the story more realistic, as much a memoir as a novel? What other details might lead you to believe that the book is autobiographical?
3. We first meet Augusta as an older woman. How does this first encounter with her shed light on her personality? What clues does it offer about her marriage? About her friendship with Rose?
4. Why is Augusta so attached to Gabe? What characteristics do they share beyond their interest in beekeeping? Are her feelings about Joy equally clear? How does the incident in the bookstore [p. 17] illuminate the relationship between mother and daughter? Which parent does Joy more closely resemble? How does this affect the way Augusta treats her? Does Augusta's description of the household in which Joy grew up [p. 197] make you more sympathetic to one of them? Why is Joy reluctant to discuss her childhood with Augusta [p. 210]? Do children often have memories that differ from those of their parents?
5. Helen and Augusta both experience premonitions. In what ways does this gift represent a basic difference between the women and their husbands? Is the vision Augusta has during her wedding [p. 59] an accurate prediction of what life holds in storefor her? Is the hand that finds hers under the water the Reverend's or Karl's?
6. Why isn't Manny more forthcoming about his misgivings about Karl before the marriage [p. 53]? What does this indicate about Manny's beliefs regarding marriage and the relationship between men and women? What influence might the suspicions and uncertainties in his own marriage have had on his refusal to "save [Augusta] from herself" [p. 53]? To what extent does Augusta and Karl's relationship mirror the marriage of Helen and Manny?
7. How do you think Karl would describe the early years of his marriage? Does it fulfill his needs and expectations? Is his style of lovemaking—"brief, to the point, practical, and in the dark" [p. 63]—a result of the circumstances in which they live, or is Karl oblivious to Augusta's needs and passion? Is his inability to stand up to his father understandable, or does it demonstrate a serious flaw in his character? Why doesn't he tell Augusta the truth about his mother's death?
8. Beyond companionship and practical help in finding jobs, what does the Reverend offer Augusta? Why is the relationship important to the Reverend? After they spend several Saturdays fishing together, "It dawned on [Augusta] that the Reverend she'd known all the years of her childhood was a role played, a fiction" [p. 107]. What impact does this realization have on Augusta and the choices she subsequently makes?
9. What draws Augusta to Joe? How does the author capture the romance and sensuality of their affair without providing graphic details? Years later, Augusta "wondered how it was ever possible for the unfaithful to keep their secrets. If they did, it was only because their mates wanted to be misled" [p. 141]. Do you agree? In light of their open meetings in the town café and their public displays of affection, is it possible that Augusta wanted Karl to learn about her affair with Joe? In what ways is Augusta's affair reminiscent of her mother's?
10. Why does the town react with such viciousness when the affair becomes common knowledge? Is this the way of small towns, or is Augusta especially vulnerable to gossip? Why does Karl accept the pregnancy with such good grace? Does Joy's birth and the move to their own farm bring about a basic change in Augusta and Karl's relationship? Why does their "love affair" really begin when Augusta begins producing honey? How does Karl's gift of an orchid differ from the other small gestures he has made over the years? What details bring to life their emotional transformation? Does the description of their lovemaking [p. 266] evoke more than just their physical pleasure?
11. Why does Augusta finally decide to tell Joe about Joy after so many years? Why doesn't she tell Joy that Joe is her father? Why does Joe come to the sale of the farm [p. 287]? Why doesn't Joy question Augusta more persistently about Joe's identity when she notices their obvious fondness for one another? In what ways do Joe's two re-appearances punctuate the flow of Augusta's life?
12. There are references to death throughout the novel. Augusta endures the deaths of several family members and has premonitions and dreams about death, including her own. What do these events contribute to the message and meaning of the story?
13. To what extent is Augusta responsible for her own discontent? For example, does the passage "Women like that—women who had no trouble finding pleasure for themselves and figured they deserved it as much as their husbands or children—made Augusta angry" [p. 207] show that she is complicit in allowing others to define her role? Given her affair with Joe, is she being hypocritical when she says that "she probably would have been better off if she'd joined them in the fun of a little indulgence" [p. 208]?
14. Would you describe Augusta as a "realist" or as a "romantic"? When she meets Joe years after their affair and he suggests that they see each other again, she says, "I'm not willing to risk everything I've built. Not anymore" [p. 262]. Why does she still see Joe as a possible threat to her marriage? What does her infatuation with the old man with the beautiful garden [p. 8] and her recognition that "this was as much a fantasy as her first love for a demon-possessed boy" [p. 303] tell you about her perceptions of herself? How does it relate to her reflection that "she didn't feel any different than she had at thirty. . . . She had expected that her desires would slacken after the possibility of a child was gone, but they hadn't" [p. 271]? In what other ways does the author bring Augusta's sensuality to life?
15. How do the lore about bees, the myths and legends Gabe treasures [pp. 27 and 32], and the passage from Virgil's Georgics [p. 252] define and strengthen the themes of the book?
16. It is often said that older women are "invisible" members of society. What incidents in the book reflect society's tendency to marginalize women like Augusta? When Augusta says the other women at the senior center "seemed an embittered old bunch to her . . . digging their heels in against the pull of change, howling for a world long gone" [p. 22], is she guilty of ageism as well? In what ways does Augusta embody common stereotypes about aging? What qualities, if any, make her an exceptional woman?
1. Augusta's story moves easily between the present and the past, yet the whole story takes place in a single day -- the day of a journey by train that is also Augusta and Karl's 48th wedding anniversary. How do the train and the anniversary serve to allow for the novel's movement in time? How does the train metaphorically illuminate the story of their lives?
2. How important to Augusta are the communities in which she lives? In what ways does the novel address the idea of "community" and how our lives are affected and moulded by the communities we are part of? You might consider the farming community, the town, the seniors' centre, even the bees.
3. Rose, Joy, Karl and Olaf all express their distaste for Augusta's tendency to be open with strangers. How does this trait of Augusta's clash with the expectations of others, and set her on various courses in life? Consider the old man with his beautiful garden as well; how does his secret behavior both irk and entice Augusta?
4. Gail Anderson-Dargatz's writing is acclaimed for how very sensuous it often is. How are all five senses employed in A Recipe for Bees? "[Augusta] had to believe God was a sensualist who enjoyed a good tomato." (pg. 37) "The sense of smell seems particularly pervasive: from flowers, hives." "They deduced the type of flower the dancing bee had located by the scent of it still lingering on its body." (pg. 39) Even Gabe, "When he handed Augusta her tea -- had left the sweet maple-syrup scent of foundation on the cup. She had inhaled the scent with every sip." (pg. 21) How does this sensuality enrich the novel and our appreciation ofAugusta? Consider also a sixth-sense: Augusta's second sight. Is it a curse or an inexplicable, even annoying fact of life, as Manny's reactions would indicate? Or a gift, as Reverend Lakeman thinks? (pg. 120) Why do you suppose Gail Anderson-Dargatz chose to give her character this ability?
5. Compare Augusta's relationship with Helen and Manny to Joy's with Augusta and Karl. Do you see Augusta as a "good" mother? Consider the teddy bear scene (pg. 224). What do you suppose accounts for Augusta's behavior?
6. How does Augusta inhabit the places she lives? What does she do to make them her own? She's very comfortable out of doors, as one would expect in a woman raised on a farm. When does she seem happiest?
7. Flowers, bees, even Karl's missing thumb perhaps, carry symbolic weight in A Recipe for Bees. What are the images that recur most often? In what contexts? And how are they effective?
8. It may seem to the reader that Augusta dreams only of small things. She is excited by the freedom of a weekly drive to Kamloops, for example (pg. 126). Do these little things demonstrate the same lack of imagination of which she accuses Karl? It was "as if he didn't understand that she, too, could be occupied by pleasure." (pg. 208) Or does Gail Anderson-Dargatz show us that it is the little things as much as the magic and the dreams that are the stuff of which life is made?
9. There are moments of cruelty in the novel: when Manny kills a horse (pg. 166); when Helen shoots a porcupine (pg. 169); when Augusta hurls a kitten against a wall (pg. 197). Life and death are portrayed as part of the ebb and flow of life on a farm, but in these instances, the author seems to be suggesting that something else is going on. Consider these events in the contexts in which they appear.
10. The publisher's jacket copy refers to the novel being in part about "the life, death and resurrection of an extraordinary marriage." How does Karl and Augusta's marriage manage to endure?
11. The narrator of A Recipe for Bees describes farm marriages this way: "Husbands and wives were married to the land as much as to each other. A different sort of love arose from that kind of necessity; it wasn't romantic or lustful, but it was steady. It was a love they manufactured each day, so that they could carry on." How do you think this kind of love is reflected, or not, in the marriages of Karl and Augusta; Manny and Helen; Olaf and Blenda?
12. The novel's title comes from Virgil. How does the passage quoted from Virgil (pg. 258 to 259) illuminate the novel's central concerns? Remember that a slaughter has had to take place in order for the bees to come alive. Consider that fact in relation to the story of Augusta and Karl.
13. While with her daughter, Augusta muses that she and Joy could be taken for sisters, then she catches a glimpse of herself reflected in a mirrored cabinet: "The tart red of her lipstick couldn't conceal the fact that she was a much older woman, neither could the outrageous purple of her blouse, nor the brightly patterned scarf she's used to pull the hair from her face. All the colour in the world wouldn't rejuvenate the withered skin of her neck...; her usefulness was all but over." (pg. 19 to 20). Although no longer young, Augusta seems to have a sense of peace in her old age. What do we learn about the inner life of an older woman through Augusta?
14. Gail Anderson-Dargatz does not romanticize farm life, but there's a lot of romance in the novel. Consider how the romance is sometimes connected to farm life, and at other times distinct from it.
15. Were you moved by the novel? When? Did you ever laugh? When? Remember the opening line: "'Have I told you the drone's penis snaps off during intercourse with the queen bee?' asked Augusta." How did you react to that opening and what does it tell you of the wholehearted life of Augusta?
Posted September 26, 2013
Could not put it down. Read it at bedtime, during commercials, and while waiting for an appointment. Loved the strong character of Augusta. And I learned alot about beekeeping! A lovely story.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 29, 2012