Books / Pop

Mad Honey, by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan

Mad Honey, by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan, Ballantine, 450 pages

The new novel by Jodi Picoult, co-written with Jennifer Finney Boylan, is too much about bees. Its protagonist, a divorced New Hampshire mother whose profession is apiarist — beekeeper — describes her work this way: “Like firefighters, we willingly put ourselves in situations that are the stuff of others’ nightmares.”

That includes schlepping out to rescue bees in the cold and dark after a bear has broken into their hive, a first-world problem for sure, but also an old-world problem; beekeeping is the second-oldest profession. And also: informing the bees when their beekeeper has died and formally requesting that they accept the replacement. “In New Hampshire, the custom is to sing, and the news has to rhyme.”

And you thought your job was tough.

This custom is so fanciful that it seems made up, especially being told by two master storytellers. But a quick search of Google confirms that “telling the bees” is actually a thing — not just of deaths, but births, marriages and other momentous events. Mad Honey indeed.

The novel could have been subtitled “more than you ever wanted to know about bees,” and the constant presentation of bee facts at times makes Mad Honey seem like it has a third co-author named Wikipedia. But there is, in fact, a good story here to justify the bee trivia.

Olivia McAfee lives in Adams, New Hampshire, with her son Asher, having moved there from Boston after her marriage to an abusive surgeon blew up. Their lives intersect explosively with a young woman named Lily, who takes turns narrating the novel with Olivia. The narrative conceit is that Olivia tells her side of the story going forward, while Lily tells her side looking back.

Lily moved to Adams seven years ago after her forest-ranger mother found a job that would enable them to escape a bad situation in Seattle. (In one funny moment, when Lily’s mother is telling her about the move, she says she has one question: Where are the White Mountains?)

Asher and Lily are dating and are finding in each other kindred souls, as both are being raised by single mothers and have fraught relationships with their fathers. (Asher meets his dad surreptitiously once a month at a Chili’s in Massachusetts.) They reach the point in their volatile but passionate relationship where they are confiding their deepest secrets and on the verge of becoming intimate.

Soon after, Lily is found dead, and when police arrive, Asher is standing by her body. Despite his insistence that he wasn’t responsible, Asher is charged with first-degree murder. As we work our way to the apex of the trial, we learn more and more about both families’ backgrounds — the difficulties of both the mothers and their children.

Aside from the occasional stilted recitation of bee facts, Mad Honey is skillfully plotted, and Picoult and Boylan have created deeply sympathetic characters who are intelligent and interesting; it’s impossible not to care about them. They authors are, however, a bit slow getting to the point; it’s as if when divvying up the writing tasks, they dispensed with the pesky business of editing and decided they would both write the equivalent of a full book, readers be damned.

But Mad Honey also has an underlying purpose, which is to pull back the curtain on a certain divisive social issue and give readers a glimpse into the humanity at the center of it. I can’t say any more without spoilers. Of course, the biggest spoiler of all is that we know Lily dies at the start, and so there’s no happy ending to be had. But it is not an unhopeful novel, nor depressing; it is saturated more with love than with cruelty. And the ending is as perfect as it can get under the circumstances.

How this book came to be is a story in itself. As Boylan tells in the authors’ notes, she dreamed the basic plot of this book, and that she had co-written it with Picoult. Then she tweeted about her dream, and Picoult reached out, asked what the book was about, then said, “Let’s do it.” (The two had read each other’s work, but never communicated before.) So it’s hard to be too critical of a book that seems to have sprung fully formed from the universe; it was clearly a book meant to be. Picoult says she expects to get hate mail about it, but it won’t be from beekeepers clearly. And for those who just can’t get enough of the sweetness, there are a handful of character-connected recipes at the end of the book. For those of you who like this sort of thing, you’ll love it. For those who don’t, wait for the movie. B+

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