Desert Isle Keeper
The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows
Olivia Waite creates another winner in The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, the story of an engraver who enters into a late-in-life romance with the town beekeeper.
London-based Agatha Griffin is an engraver and printer whose business is her life and whose public depends on her for accurate representations of current events. It’s a business she inherited from her husband, Thomas, whom she still misses. Sydney, her rabble-rousing nineteen-year-old son, is her eyes and ears on the streets of London, and the boy will someday take over the business, though she fears he will get himself in so much trouble agitating for the common people that he’ll be in jail before that happens. But Sydney is a crusading journalist at heart, and less an engraver than a man of justice – thus Agatha takes on an apprentice, Eliza, whom Agatha secretly hopes will make a match for Sydney.
Penelope Flood, the wife of a sailor with whom she has a complex relationship, is the town’s resident beekeeper and a happy, trouser-wearing budding poet. She is somewhat more jolly than the intense Agatha, and lives a happy independent life, but does miss the romance of being adored.
Agatha – who’s headed to a suburb outside of London to check on one of her warehouses – is startled to note it’s been invaded by bees. She has to call Penelope in to remove the colony safely from the premises, and sparks begin to fly between them immediately. Agatha finds herself taking more time off from her work to follow Penelope as she tends to the town’s hives, meeting the local populace and learning about bees and bee-related lore from Penelope.
Their acquaintanceship evolves into friendship, then into tentative romance. But their lives are messy, busy and involved. Will they find a second chance at love?
The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is even better than A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, my favorite book of last year. While Lady’s Guide focused on the world of academia, here the story is about how the ordinary world of the women’s small village reacts to sudden political and social upheaval, and that makes all the difference. Lady’s Guide felt more insular within its academic world; Waspish Widows thinks locally.
Agatha and Penelope meet against the backdrop of the Parliamentary divorce trial of George IV who is desperate to prevent his wife Caroline from becoming queen. Caroline was very much a queen in the hearts of the people, who disliked the adulterous George. The people in Agatha and Penelope’s small village of Mellinton are caught in the floodtide of seismic political change as George falls from favor and the British people revolt against his choice to divorce Caroline in favor of his mistresses. This makes a wonderful backdrop to their fight for rights both large-scale and small; it’s fun to hang around at tea and in taprooms with these folks.
There wasn’t anything I didn’t like about stiffly-formal-until-she-melts Agatha and salt-of-the-earth Penelope. Their relationship develops with a sweet, wonderful slowness, with a pace that defines the words ‘slow burn’.
Again – this is a story about community, and you’re going to feel at home in the town of Mellinton right away. There is an entire subplot revolving around erotic statuary extent in a back garden belonging to Agatha’s mother-in-law which offends the sensibilities of Agatha’s neighbors, and about a musician trapped in a marriage whose doggerel verse twitterpates the local preacher when Agatha prints them – and she prints political broadsides as well, making her an even bigger center of controversy. That doggerel writer (whose identity I will not divulge) and Agatha’s mother-in-law were my favorite minor characters.
I need to spare a word for the fierce Sydney and the wonderfully strong-minded Eliza, whose romance makes a fun side-dish to the carefully crafted main one of Agatha and Penelope’s. There’s nothing better than watching two activists fall in love over similar passions. I also loved Agatha and Sydney’s mother/son relationship – it’s nice to have a son in a romance novel who’s supportive of his mother’s falling in love with someone new and isn’t nasty about it.
A quick note – while this is part of a continuing series and Catherine from Ladies’ Guide pops up for a cameo, this book can be read independently. This may disappoint some readers, but I was too delighted with the people of Mellinton to care much about the lack of heavy cross-over.
The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is touching, rousing, comforting, challenging and gladdening. It’s a great read, an emotionally and romantically fulfilling banquet that will delight readers for years to come. I give it my highest recommendation. Enjoy it with a cool glass of iced tea – sweetened with honey, of course.