Elizabeth Graver's first novel, Unravelling, was hailed on publication as "exceptional" (The New York Times Book Review), "a pleasure" (The New Yorker), and "exquisitely poignant and sensual" (The Boston Globe). Now, in her second novel, she proves herself to be a major voice in American fiction. The summer that eleven-year-old Eva is caught shoplifting (for the fourth time), her mother, Miriam, decides the only solution is to move out of the city to a quiet town in upstate New York. There, she hopes, they can have the normal life she longs for. But Miriam is bound by a past she is trying to forget, and tensions escalate. It is only when Eva meets a reclusive beekeeper that she-and her mother-can find their way back to each other, and can begin life with renewed promise. A haunting novel of memory and desire, The Honey Thief reveals the healing power of friendship and the ineradicable bonds of mother and child.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)|
About the Author
ELIZABETH GRAVER is the author of Unravelling and The Honey Thief. She teaches at Boston College and lives in Massachusetts
Read an Excerpt
By Elizabeth Graver
Rebound by SagebrushCopyright ©2000 Elizabeth Graver
All right reserved.
What Eva would remember later, looking back, were the honey jars, how she was riding her bike down the road, legs churning, hair whipping across her face, not far from home yet (if this new place could be called home) but rounding corners, moving fast, until there they weresix jars of honey, maybe eight, each with its own curved belly and white lid, sitting on an old wooden card table in the grass. And perhaps it was the way the sun caught them or how unexpected they were, but she stopped her bike that afternoon and simply stared. She'd seen honey beforethey had it in the citybut not lined up like this, not outside for anyone to take, a light-filled golden orange color like a prescription pill bottle or her mother's amber necklace from her father, the one with ancient insects trapped inside its beads.
And though Eva didn't know yet that all across the country, the honeybees were dying, she felt the honey, still, as a rare thing. Propping her bike against a tree, she walked up to the table and looked aroundnobodythen reached a finger out to touch warm glass. She saw the sign, HONEY $3, and the box with a slit in its top. She touched the sign, touched the box, then the honey againcarefully, as if it might giveher a shock. She wore a brown T-shirt and black cutoffs, a city girl, and her hair was dark and curly, escaping from her bicycle helmet like something live. Standing there, she felt her throat clog with longingfor someone to step out from behind a tree and speak to her, or for the honey; she wasn't sure.
But no no, she wouldn't take anything, wouldn't mess up. All this way, they had come, for her. Country air, safe streets, a place to make a good life, her mother had said. Eva had a new used bike, and long days to fill, and an old-lady babysitter sleeping on the porch as if Mrs. Flynn were the baby and Eva the sitter. A babysitter, though she was eleven, too old to need one. A good life, she figured, meant learning to be good, but she wanted to snatch up one of the honey jars, tuck it under her shirt and sneak it home. It might be a present for her mother, a way to get her to laugh in some old, forgotten way, a gurgle of surprise, her head tipped back.
But she knew it wouldn't work like that. Where did you get it, her mother would ask. Was Mrs. Flynn with you? Did you pay for it? And Eva would find words spitting from her mouth I hate you, leave me alone! and run crying from the room. She remembered, then, the man with the big stomach and walkie-talkie, his hand gripping the hood of her sweatshirt as they waited for her mother by the checkout at Love's. On the counter, her loot: a fluorescent green pen, some fingernail polish, a mood ring. I don't know, she had said, only half lying, when her mother shook her and asked why. And later, both of them crying, something her mother almost never did. Be good, be good. She had promised both her mother and herself.
So she took nothing, just got on her bike and left, weaving down roads of dirt and tar, past barns and cows, tilting houses. and rusting shells of cars, coming home thirsty and dusty to find Mrs. Flynn still sleeping on the porch, as if no time had passed. She stole nothing, but that night as she lay in bed, the honey returned to her anyway, slow and thick as a river she might dream of, a place where things hung suspended or inched slowly, slowly toward her hands.
Mornings in the city they'd had rituals; here they had none. In the city, Eva would wake first, pull on her jeans and sweatshirt, grab the dollar bills from the table, lock the door behind her and head downstairs, her eyes still glazed with sleep. A newspaper and coffee for her mother, a bagel for each of them; she didn't even have to ask. A dim, sleepy smile for Hal in the coffee shop, Hal with his gleaming bald head and ears sparkling with gold rings. "Eva my diva, don't ever leava!" he'd call, and sometimes he'd point her out to other customers: "See this cupcake? I've known her since she was a babe in arms." Then back upstairs, her mother in the shower, the radio tuned to jazz, Eva late again. She'd wolf down her bagel, vaguely run a comb through her hair until it got stuck in her curls, put on a clean shirt for school, maybe a bracelet even, the one she'd made from leather and glass beads. And Miriam would be out of the shower by then, dripping in the hallway, wrapped in a towel. "Comb your hair," she might say, but she didn't really care. They were flying by then, both of them, with things to do, places to be, the city singing out below them, horns, voices and the grinding of gears.
Here, most days, Eva woke to silence. Sometimes she tried to rouse herself when her mother did, but the house was so big, the walls so thick, and she couldn't always hear Miriam getting up. Plus her mother set her alarm so early, nervous about the used car she had just learned to drive, about the half-hour drive to work and work itself, the job new, the people, well, different, was all she would say. Mean? No, not at all meannice, actually, especially the other paralegal, I just.... And Miriam would sigh. I want to do well, that's all, she'd say, and Eva would know she meant I want us to do well, or you, really, because wasn't Eva the reason they'd come here in the first place, to this nowhere house?
Eva would wake to a slant of light on the pale striped wallpaper of her room; it started by the ceiling and ran past Jesus to the floor. Her mother had wanted to take down the cross on the wall but Eva had said no, please leave it, and her mother had let it stay. Each morning, now, Eva got out of bed and walked slowly downstairs, trailing her fingers on the walls. In the kitchen she'd switch on the clock radio and look at the pictures in yesterday's New York Times. Once in a while, out of a mix of habit and stubbornness, she turned on the TV. They had no reception without cable, but still she sat straining to hear words through the static and seaching for shapes that might be people through the snow.
Each morning at nine, Mrs. Flynn showed up, lowering her stout body onto the porch chair, pulling out a pile of bills, or People, or a crossword puzzle book that she did in pencil so she could erase it and do it again. "'Lo, Eva," she'd say. Low low, and she just sat there like a bulldog until five o'clock, the skin on her neck all loose and soft, her ankles and fingers bloated as if she'd been stewing in water.
"I don't need a babysitter," Eva told her mother after the first week. They were eating dinner on the front porch, balancing their plates on their knees, "I don't like her. Why didn't we get somebody younger, who'd do things with me?"
Miriam finished chewing. "She has excellent references. I had to hire someone at the last minute and she seems responsible. She said you played Scrabble yesterday. Wasn't that fun?"
"I'd rather have a teenager."
Eva rolled her eyes. "You're not a babythat's why you don't have a babysitter. Hmm, that's funnyneither am I."
She could see her mother trying not to smile. "Listen," Miriam said. "You never know what a teenager will do, and we need someone who can drive in case of an emergency. It's just for now. I'm still trying to find you a camp but you have to be patient. It's almost Augusteven if camp doesn't work out, school will start before you know it."
Eva stabbed her fork into a stalk of broccoli and left it there. It was barely July. "What is this?" she asked.
"Risotto. You don't like it? We used to eat it when you were little. It's Italian. I think it's delicious."
"It's slimy," she said, but in fact she was hungry and did kind of like it, so when her mother sighed and shut her eyes, she had some more. "Why did I like it?" she asked.
Miriam opened her eyes. "What?"
"Why did I like risotto when I was little?"
"I don't knowI guess you thought it tasted good."
Why did I think it tasted good, Eva wanted to ask. Did my father eat it? Did he make it for me? So many questions came to her, but no matter how many times her mother answered, the answers never satisfied. She tried to see herself in a highchair, her fists full of the slippery smooth grains. Her mother's eyes were shut again; she always came home exhausted from her new job.
"It's not even dark yet," Eva said loudly. "And already you're going to sleep."
Miriam opened her eyes and yawned. "I'm not, I'm just resting for a second." She stretched. "But you're right, let's do something. Let's ... no, you decide. What do you want to do?"
"Hang out with Charu."
"Please, Eva. How about we ... I knowwe could take a walk."
"Where? There's nowhere to go."
"Oh come on, goose." She waved at the field in front of them. "Look."
Eva looked. The field was lit gold with early evening light. A bird she couldn't name flew overhead. Her mother stood and reached out a hand, then dropped it to her side. Eva put her plate down and stood, too. She could try to be nicer. She could. "Which way?" she asked.
She pointed over her shoulder. There was no road in that direction, just a high, dense wall of trees behind a field where a shed sat filled with broken things.
Her mother turned and looked. "That way? Really? Are you sure?"
They didn't get very far that evening; there were too many bugs and Miriam was afraid of getting stuck in the dark. Eva would have liked thatto make a roof of trees, a bed of grass, to settle into the curve of her mother's arm like she had when she was small. Instead, they came back while it was still light, but they did pick flowers, a floppy bunch of them, and put them in a coffee pot on the kitchen table. The next day Miriam came home from work with a book called A Field Guide to Wildflowers, a green shovel and a packet of seeds. Eva read the instructions on the labelPlant late May/early June.
"It's too late," she said.
Her mother took the packet from her. "You're right. How stupid of me. Damn."
Eva almost said, It doesn't matter, almost said, Thanks, it was a good idea, but something kept her silent.
"I'll get you different seeds," her mother told her. "They must have ones that can be planted now."
But Eva knew she never would.
And then, one day, after they'd been there for another week, the bike.
"I stopped by a white elephant sale," Miriam told her, "and bought it for a song."
White elephants? A song? Her mother was starting to talk funny and kept filling their fridge with food from the health food store near her new jobfake, rubbery hot dogs called Not Dogs and drinks in cardboard boxes marked Rice Dream. But the bike was red with tassels on the handlebars and came with a rack over the back wheel and a silvery blue helmet for her head, and if she couldn't make a garden, Eva could ride a bike; her mother's friend Sarah had taught her when she was six, in Central Park.
"You can use it to explore the countryside," said Miriam, but in her mind Eva was already leaving, riding down dirt roads, over highways, through the city, down to the East Village. ThereSecond Street, their grubby, smelly, crowded, windblown block, and on one side the iron fence with the surprising green graveyard behind it, and she would peer through the slats to the ground where she liked to think her father lay, though she knew it wasn't true. And Hal winking, and the outside door and the door to the apartment, three keys in allturn this one, then that, press up and in at the same timeand Charu downstairs, the smell of curry rising yellow through the floor, making Eva homesick for India, a place she'd never been.
"With a bike you can get to know the neighborhood, as long as you're careful," her mother was saying, but Eva didn't think it was called a neighborhood if it had no people, and already she was miles from there inside her head, remembering the smallest things (already she knew to hold onto them), vivid as tastes on the back of her tongue: the hollow clop-clop drip of the faucet in their apartment; the height chart inside the closet door, showing how she'd grown; the way her bagel steamed in welcome when she sliced it open; Charu leaving her notes under the milk crate in the hall.
But forgetting, too. The stealinghow empty, how furious her hands had felt before she filled them, how jagged her thoughts until her fist closed hard around an object and the world smoothed out. The stealing, but also other things: the way Hal in the coffee shop was looking sicker every day; how it was so hard to sleep in their Second Street apartment, the new people upstairs fighting in the middle of the night, Eva's mother opening the creaky medicine cabinet to get a sleeping pill, or putting the kettle on to make tea.
* * *
The day after she spotted the honey, she decided to go back. It was a soupy, cloudy morning, the air thick with rain that hadn't yet arrived. Mrs. Flynn stayed inside on days like this, stretched out on the couch.
"Lousy weather for my bones," she said as Eva passed by. "Where re you going, hon?"
"Just for a quick bike ride."
Mrs. Flynn pulled herself up with a groan. "Remember, you're not supposed to go far. You think your mother wants you out in the rain?"
"It's not raining. I'll wear a jacket."
"There might be a lightning storm coming on. If you ever get stuck in one, you know to lie low, right, away from metal, not on the bike? Those storms can split a tree right down the middle, like an ax. You ever see that?" She massaged her arm. "You better stay inside."
Eva squirmed as she stood there in the weak light, pretending to let this woman babysit her. Some days they hardly said a word to each other, but now and then Mrs. Flynn grew bossy and talkative, and Eva had the dim sense that there was a whole person sitting in front of her, with unexpected corners to her mind. Other times, Mrs. Flynn tried to be friendly, to get her to play a game or talk about New York or, once, to learn how to crochet.
"I'll be back before it rains," Eva said.
"I don't want you caught out there, getting a cold or who knows what."
"I won't, I just needmy mother wants me to get exercise, it's part of why we came here. She said to ride my bike every day."
Mrs. Flynn heaved her thick legs back onto the couch. "Lucky girl, to be able to run and play. Used to be I was the fastest one around. When I was your age, I took care of the younger ones, never mind having a babysitter myself. In those days I"
"Be back soon" Eva called over her shoulder, and was out the door.
* * *
At first, as she rode, she worriedthe honey wouldn't be there, it was only a one-time thing; she would arrive to find it gone. She couldn't say why she cared so much, knew only that she did, the way in the city she'd see some small thing in a storesilver-pink fingernail polish, a chewy brown caramel with a sugar centerand know she had to claim it as a charm.
Then, as she reached the end of the driveway and turned down the dirt road, she worried that the honey would be there and she'd have to steal it. You should've brought money, she told herself. Back at the house, she had a red wallet with thirty-seven dollar bills inside that she could never bring herself to spend. But noit was far more likely that she would steal the honey and her mother would find out and they'd be back where they started, Miriam looking at her sadly, her voice about to break: Don't you know how hard I try?
As Eva kept riding, her legs pumping hard, something stretched out inside her head. She rode the bike well, steering around potholes, taking the bumps, and she knew where she was going this time, had learned a route through the neighborhood, if you could call it that. In Manhattan she hadn't exactly been a latchkey kid since her mother paid Charu's mother to watch her after school, but Ratha also had the boys to care for and let Eva and Charu play outside for hours at a time. The two girls roamed the neighborhood like cats, poking here, sniffing there; this was their turf and they knew its every corner. But Charu was good, would never steal, got to piggyback her baby brothers, had a father who spoke to her in another language and wore white, soapy-smelling shirts. Eva pictured Charu next to her on a bike, the two of them tourists, laughing at this place. Except Charu didn't know how to ride a bike, and meanwhile, Eva was supposed to live here, and now the dirt road crossed with a tar road and for a second she was unsure which way to go, but then she remembered and turned left.
Above her, the sky was bloated. A slight breeze came toward her through the heat. She hadn't brought a jacket but she didn't careif it rained, she'd just open her mouth and have a drink. Or maybe lightning would strike, splitting a tree in two. Metal, Mrs. Flynn had said; the lightning would want her bike. She pictured herself lying stiff and dead and pedaled faster. Her mother would find the body, start to cry: I'm so sorry; I shouldn't have made you move. And they would bury her on Second Street, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the stubborn green grass.
Rounding a bend, she came to the place where the honey had been and saw that it was all still therethe table, the money box, the jars. The table was peeling, its legs stuck deep into the ground like it was growing there. She rode past the first time, then circled back. There were other things she hadn't noticed the day before: a red mailbox missing its door, a dirt driveway and, in the distance, a small white house and big gray barn. There were five jars of honey, one or two fewer, she thought, than there'd been before, though she wasn't sure. And something else, something newa jar with a label that said TASTE in crayoned letters, and next to it, a stack of wooden sticks like the kind the doctor used to make you gag. She put down her bike and went to see.
At first when she put the stick in her mouth, she could only taste the honeya thick taste, it was, almost too sweet, a little sickening, like cough syrup or the smell of flowery perfume. She licked the stick clean, looked around her again but saw no one, checked over her shoulder for her bike. It wasn't raining yet, but the air was so full it almost hurt. She screwed the lid back on the honey and held the stick to her mouth like a cigarette.
"Dahling," she said, flicking her wrist toward Charu, who wasn't there. Her voice surprised her, sounding louder than she expected. "Be good," she whispered, then. The honey jars were full and gleaming. Some of the honey was pale yellow, the rest a deeper orange, and she wondered why it wasn't all the same. The money box was held shut with a silver padlock. Three dollars was all it would take to buy a jar; she had so much more than that at home. As she stood staring at the table, a raindrop land on its surface. She looked into the pine forest to the right of the table, pushing her hair off her face. Just for a minute, she told herself, to see what's back there. Maybe a girl lived in the house and played outside, or there might be a dog she could take home, or a store in the middle of the woods, its shelves stocked tight with things.
What she found instead, when she walked through the trees to the field beyond, were the beehives. At first she didn't know what they were, these big wooden boxes on cinder blocks, painted gray or white and stacked on top of one another. Glimpsing shapes through the trees, she thought she might have come across a playground or construction site. Each stack of boxes had a faded brick on top, sometimes two. The rain was coming down faster now, making it hard to see, but as she got closer, she noticed darting shapes and saw that the ledge at the bottom of each stack was specked with crawling bees. A bee flew toward her, its buzzing loud enough to hear, and she flinched and stepped away. Breathing in, she realized that the air smelled of honey, or was she just smelling the inside of her own mouth? She moved forward again, hoping to find a way to look into a hive, but another bee flew angrily in front of her, then looped off.
The sky had opened up while she stood there; the temperature had dropped. Her shirt clung wet to her chest, and her hair dripped water in her mouth and eyes. Go home, she told herself. The bees, she saw, were crawling out of the weather, disappearing inside a dark space at the bottom of the box. Come in, their mothers must have been calling. Thunder sounded from the sky, an empty, thudding noise. Eva knew she should be scared but found that she was not. In New York, sometimes, it was like this, too: an ambulance would pass by and she wouldn't even blink, just stand there picturing a woman on a stretcher, maybe gasping, maybe dead, nothing to be done. A sudden death, I'm so sorry, cards and casseroles, or no, maybe the woman surprises them. There was a bright light, she says, sitting up (on TV she was pretty, with a wide mouth and startled eyes). A long, red tunnel. A peaceful feeling. Then somebody called my name.
Again the thunder clapped. Still Eva stood in the field. Maybe, she thought, a girl struck by lightning would split down the middle and become two girls, and then she'd have a friend. She held out her watch with its metal band, to call the lightning down. She wouldn't tell Mrs. Flynn about the hives and honey, wouldn't even tell her mother. She had done nothing wrong, after all, had stolen nothing.
The lightning did not come to her; nobody came. As she walked through the rain to her bike, she prayed to Jesus for a live girl with hair the color of honey, who would open up a hive to show her what happened inside.
Excerpted from Honey Thief by Elizabeth Graver Copyright ©2000 by Elizabeth Graver. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
1. From the first chapter on, Eva's desire to steal forms a central strand in the novel. Why do you think she has this impulse? How is it related to the events of her early childhood? To her present circumstances? What is it allowing her to work out or stave off? What do you make of the fact that Miriam also stole when she was younger, as we see in her memory of her trip to Mexico (page 23)?
2. The Honey Thief takes place both in Manhattan and in a rural town in upstate New York. How is this dual setting important? At one point, as Miriam considers moving to the country, she remembers Francis scoffing at what he called "the Geographic Cure" (page 22). Was Francis correct in thinking that changing location is no solution to life's troubles? What effects does the move eventually have on Miriam's and Eva's relationship? On their individual development?
3. What is Burl's role in the book? What does beekeeping mean to him? To Eva? To their growing friendship? What compels Eva to open up the hive toward the end of the book? The world of the bees and the social world of people in the novel intersect in many ways. How would you describe those connections?
4. "She asked her mother questions," we read of Eva, "and her mother answered, and the answers both soothed and itched, so Eva asked again and yet again" (page 200). Why is Eva so interested in hearing stories about the past? What happens to those stories (for example, the one about how Miriam and Francis met, in Chapter Five) as they are told or remembered over time? What is the function of stories or memories about the past for the different characters in the book?
5. There are many instances, in The HoneyThief, of people lying, skirting around the truth, or omitting key details. Eva neglects to tell her mother about Burl; Burl covers up for Eva when Miriam asks him if she ever stole honey; Francis withholds information from Miriam about his illness. Most important, Miriam misrepresents the past to Eva. How do you understand the motivations behind these various dodgings of the truth? Should Miriam have been more straightforward with her daughter? What made her behave the way she did? What are the obligations, in a family or friendship, to reveal or withhold the truth?
6. Author Elizabeth Berg wrote that "in The Honey Thief, Elizabeth Graver captures the mixed pain and pleasure in the mother/daughter relationship [and] illuminates the sharp-edged longings of adolescence." A number of recent novels explore relations between mothers and daughters, among them, Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John, Elizabeth Strout's Amy and Isabelle, and Kaye Gibbons's Sights Unseen. What links do you see between The Honey Thief and these books or other recent novels about mothers and daughters?
7. Mental illness is a specter throughout the novel, most directly for Francis, but also for Miriam as she watches Eva grow up and worries that the child may have inherited her father's disorder. How does the novel explore what it's like to live under such a shadow? How does Francis's illness bring out or suppress parts of him? Of Miriam and Eva? Why is Miriam so worried that Eva might end up like her father? What is your evaluation of Eva's mental health?
8. Why do you think Elizabeth Graver chose to tell this story from three perspectives, instead of, say, sticking to Eva's perspective? How do the fears, hopes, and longings of Eva, Burl, and Miriam echo with or contradict each other? Why are we never given direct access to Francis's point of view? The book ends with Burl's perspective, as he watches Eva and Miriam at the observation hive. What has shifted by the end of The Honey Thief for each of these three people? How have these changes come about?
Copyright (c) 2000. Published by Harcourt, Inc.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Wonderful characters to spend a day with. Perfectly balanced and quite real. A thoughtful story to snuggle in with and enjoy.
THE HONEY THIEF is a good read. Mother and daughter experience painful growth spurts which eventually foster a coping relationship between them. In Judy Blume fashion, Elizabeth Graver perfectly captures the horribleness of puberty--crazy thoughts, unexplainable acts, and screaming, rude behavior. Is it any wonder mom considers her daughter bipolar/manic? Overall, the story is real . . . . Mother and daughter react in very wrong ways and teenager-rearing is shown to be what it is, HARD. As a reader, it was frustrating not to be able to step in and give advice to the mother and daughter on 'a better way of doing things.' Overall, the book should offer reassurance to Moms of teenage daughters and the book would even be helpful for a teenage daughter who is just so complicated.
This is the most lyrical gem of a book, describing in vivid detail the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, mental illness, the pain of regret and the awkwardness of growing up. I feel as though I have known Eva, Miriam and Burl my entire life. Elizabeth Graver, if you are reading this, thank you for writing this book.
For an otherwise simple story about a single mother struggling to control her daughter, The Honey Thief wields an amazing power over the reader. The author writes a beautiful story and draws the reader into the complicated, yet mundane lives of her characters. You'll be surprised how quickly you get drawn into the plot. 'If only Eva could control her wild urges...' 'If only Miriam could finally gain control over her life...' The author has written a wonderful and warm story that is rich with description and detail.