Maverick Life

BOOK REVIEW

A gripping read that asks: How do we learn to coexist with cruelty in the world?

A gripping read that asks: How do we learn to coexist with cruelty in the world?

Mad Honey is also a reflection on the prejudice, restraints and judgements associated with alternative constructions of identity. It is a must-read for thinking about the contemporary world in which we live.

‘The secret weapon of mad honey, of course, is that you expect it to be sweet, not deadly. You’re deliberately attracted to it. By the time it messes with your head, with your heart, it’s too late.”

In Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan, the authors caution that mad honey is the one type of honey that you should avoid at all costs. It’s formed when bees forage on rhododendrons and mountain laurel. Filled with poisonous grayanotoxins, it causes dizziness, nausea and cardiac disorder. Mad Honey is an apt name for a book that tells a story about something sweet going wrong – how, despite our best intentions, we can end up harming the things we love. 

It is one of the most compelling books I’ve read this year. It’s hard to reduce it to a genre – it’s so many things. In part, it’s a love story. Lily and her mother, Asher, relocate to New Hampshire after Lily has been bullied at school. Lily has a secret, one that she would like to be able to share, but cannot risk doing so because it has harmed her in the past. She is wary about making friends at her new high school, but then she meets Asher and after a tentative start, they fall in love and become joined at the hip. 

Everything is perfect until it is not. Lily is found dead at the bottom of a staircase and Asher is arrested on a charge of murder. The story alternates with a series of flashbacks from when Lily was alive and the drama that unfolds after Asher’s arrest. 

Mad Honey is a gripping read for many reasons. The pace of the story is fast – you’ll find yourself sitting up till late, wanting to know what happens. At its heart is the unfolding of the love story between Lily and Asher – an intricate, beautiful reflection on a love affair that is grappling to hold space within the complexity of broader social norms about gender identity. 

The story of Lily and Asher’s mothers is also integral to the plot. Both women have been harmed by toxic men and are trying to leave behind a violent past and start afresh, building on the backbone of the scars left from harmful relationships. The book is rich in its reflections on violence against women and the social stigmatisation attached to those who dare to question their gendered identity. 

It brings to life the agony and pain associated with the deterioration of one’s mental health when the world is harsh in judging us. The intricacies of self-harm and the battle to make it through each day and stay alive are vividly brought to the fore. The fundamental question that the book asks is: “How do we learn to coexist with cruelty in the world?” But the book is also about the redemption and the solace found in ordinary things – in being seen and heard by another, in finding beauty in art – Lily conquers the cello and pours all her emotions into it, finding healing in the power of music. 

One of the intriguing aspects of the book is the peripheral commentary on beekeeping and the lives of bees. Olivia is devoted to her bee colonies and spends much of her time tending to them. The bees become a metaphor for thinking about our gendered social order. Olivia tells us that the only purpose of male bees is to mate with the queen and that they die in the process. 

Queen bees go on one maiden mating flight when they fly out, releasing pheromones to attract the drones. The drones will compete to get to the queen and a drone will turn the tip of its abdomen inside out to expose his penis and enter the queen’s sting chamber. Once his sperm is in the queen, his penis snaps off, staying inside her. He falls to his death as another drone hooks up with her. 

The mating season takes place in spring and by the time autumn comes, if there are any drones left in the hive, they will be attacked by the worker bees, dismembered, and tossed out. Picoult and Finney Boylan write: “We could learn a lot from bees. Girls run the bee world and worker bees are all female. They feed the baby bees, forage for food, ripen the honey, cool down the hive when it’s too hot. They are also undertakers, working in pairs to drag out the dead.” 

Mad Honey is not only a gripping read, it is also a reflection on the prejudice, restraints and judgements associated with alternative constructions of identity. It is a must-read for thinking about the contemporary world in which we live and learning to accept others for who they are. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ritey roo roo says:

    Lily and her mother, Asher, relocate to New Hampshire – then she meets Asher and after a tentative start, they fall in love and become joined at the hip. ????

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

X

This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.


Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options