A Recipe for Bees: A Novel by Gail Anderson-Dargatz
Gail Anderson-Dargatz's evocative novel of one woman's simple but passionately lived life reminds of us of the pleasure to be found in human contact and simple, natural things.
Raised by her silent but companionable father and a mother who kept bees, headstrong Augusta marries shy, deferential Karl, twelve years her senior, and goes to live with him on his father's remote farm. Terrified that she will literally die from loneliness and isolation, she finds work in town, and for a short time, fulfillment with another man in a romance that will reverberate throughout her life. Not until many years later does she find her salvation in beekeeping, the practice she first learned from her mother. It is beekeeping that reconnects her to the world and at long last brings fire to her steadfast marriage.
Gail Anderson-Dargatz is the author of the award-winning novel The Cure for Death by Lightning. She lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One
"Have I told you the drone's penis snaps off during intercourse with the queen bee?" asked Augusta.
"Yes," said Rose. "Many times."
Before Augusta dragged her luggage upstairs to the apartment, before she checked on the welfare of her elderly husband, Karl, even before she hugged and greeted her seven kittens, she had made her way, with the aid of a cane, across the uneven ground to inspect the hive of bees she kept in Rose's garden.
"They won't mate at all unless they're way up in the sky," said Augusta. "The drones won't take a second look at a queen coming out of a hive. But when she's thirty, a hundred, feet up in the air, then she gets their interest. They'll seek her out, flying this way and that to catch her scent until there's a V of drones -- like the V of geese following a leader in the sky -- chasing along behind her."
"You were going to tell me about Joe," said Rose.
"As soon as the drone mounts and thrusts, he's paralyzed, his genitals snap off, and he falls backward a hundred feet to his death."
"I don't want to hear about it."
In late summer, hives full of ripening honey emitted a particular scent, like the whiff of sweetness Augusta used to catch passing by the candy-apple kiosk at the fall fair, but without the tang of apples to it. She should have been smelling this now, but instead the hive gave off the vinegar-and-almond scent of angry bees. They buzzed loudly, boiling in the air in front of the hive like a pot of simmering toffee. There were far more guard bees than usual, standing at attention at the mouth of the hive.
"Something's been after the bees," said Augusta. She took a step forward to examine them, but several bees flew straight at her, warning her off. "I'll have to look at them later," she said. "When they've settled down."
She turned to the balcony of her apartment, directly above the garden. "Do you think Karl remembers today is our anniversary?"
"He hasn't said anything to me," said Rose. Later that evening, though, Augusta would learn that Rose had hidden Karl's flowers in her fridge. He had walked up and down the roadsides and into the vacant lots, searching for pearly everlastings, sweet tiny yellow flowers with white bracts that bloomed from midsummer right on into winter, and held their shape and color when dried. They were the flowers Karl had picked for Augusta's wedding bouquet forty-eight years before. He had brought the flowers to Rose's apartment in a vase and asked her to hide them in her fridge until later that day.
"You'd think he'd remember, wouldn't you?" said Augusta. "Especially after everything that's happened these past three weeks."
"You can hear it, you know."
"The snapping. If you're listening for it, you can hear a sharp crack when the drone's penis breaks off."
Rose followed Augusta as she headed through the sliding glass doors into Rose's apartment to retrieve her luggage. "Can you carry this one upstairs?" she asked Rose. "And this one? I can only manage the one bag with this cane of mine."
Rose took the bags, one in each hand. "But you were going to tell me the story, about seeing Joe again."
"Not now, Rose. I want to see if Joy's phoned with news about Gabe."
"But you promised."
"We'll have plenty of time later."
"You'd go and tell something like that to some strange woman on the train, but you won't tell your best friend."
"I like Esther. I think we'll be seeing a lot more of her. I promised to show her my hive."
"You'll be seeing a lot more of her. I don't care if I ever see her again."
"Well, since neither Esther nor I can drive, you'll have to drive me, so yes, you will be seeing her again."
"Oh, isn't that just great? Now I'm your personal chauffeur."
Augusta turned around at the doorway. "Rose, what's this all about?"
"Just tell the story. About Joe. I thought you never saw him again."
Augusta shook her head and started up the stairs to her apartment. "I'm sure I told you all that already. I can remember showing you the brooch he gave me. Ages and ages ago."
"Yes, the day we met. But you never told me the story. Are you really going to give that brooch to Joy?" Augusta had met Rose five years before, on the ferry, just after she and Karl had sold the farm. Augusta and Karl were moving to the warmer climate of Vancouver Island. Rose turned the corner into the ferry bathroom and there was Augusta, sitting at the mirrored makeup counter they have on those boats, rummaging through her big purse. Augusta had looked up at Rose in the mirror, smiled, and said, "Do you have a comb? I can't seem to find mine." Perhaps it was an inappropriate request to make of a stranger, she thought now, rather like asking to borrow someone's toothbrush. Rose said no. "They have them at the newsstand."
"Thanks. I'll get one from there. That's a lovely brooch you're wearing."
"It was my mother's," Rose replied, and Augusta promptly caught her in a web of conversation about the brooch a man named Joe had given her, a brooch Augusta pulled from her purse and showed Rose: a silver setting hemmed a real bee suspended in amber. When Augusta held it up, it cast a little pool of honey light on the floor. "It was the only lasting thing he ever gave me, in the way of presents," she said. "And that was decades after I'd stopped seeing him. I still dream about him, you know." Rose nodded and smiled and moved slowly backward, away, to a toilet stall. Augusta, seeing her discomfort, left before she came out again.
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?
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.
A Recipe for Bees: A Novel 4.8 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
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.
More than 1 year ago
Books like this are why I read!!
Augusta's life was so real and her story was so tenderly told. So well told that I couldn't put it down. I was drawn to this book because I'm a beekeeper and the bee lore was interesting. But I kept reading because I wanted to know more about Augusta and Karl and how Augusta persevered and found happiness in a sometimes difficult life. The ending was satisfying and I didn't need a box of tissues!! I highly recommend this book for all ages.
More than 1 year ago
One of the best books i have ever read
More than 1 year ago
Just as bees give delicious honey, so too do they sting. Then there's honey again. A wonderfully imaginative and affectionate young woman learns to wear appropriate protective garb around her hives, but, from time to time, when she is calm, caresses the tiny ones bare-handed. This excellent metaphor represents the struggle of many women of the past to find joy in a patriarchal society that punished deviance with stinging gossip and shunning. Women, like Augusta, whose first marriages were reactions rather than joy-filled, bravely reached out for better and better. Never far from her strong feelings, August truly becomes a Wise Woman.
Eleanor Cowan, author of : A History of a Pedophile's Wife
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