Tara and I loved The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, a slow-paced f/f romance that is a standalone novel in the “Feminine Pursuits” series by Olivia Waite. I (Carrie) raved about The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics so I was very excited for this book. Although you don’t have to have read that book to enjoy this one, you’ll recognize one of the main characters, Agatha, if you have.
Agatha Griffin is a printer in London. She’s now widowed and stretched thin running her business, and hopes her politically minded son will take over some day. When she comes out to her secondary print shop in the fictional seaside village of Melliton, Agatha is dismayed to find some bees have made a colony among some of the older printing plates in storage. Although a bee colony should be terrible news, it turns out to be one of the best things that ever happened to Agatha, because she’s directed to ask for help from local beekeeper Penelope Flood.
Penelope is quirky and kind, and deftly removes the colony, setting up the bees in a hive on the print shop’s property. The two women forge a friendship through letters, which deepens when Agatha starts visiting Melliton weekly, and they begin quietly crushing on each other. As the country is thrown into turmoil with Queen Caroline returning from the continent, Penelope’s husband also returns home from whaling. With London and Melliton becoming more politically explosive, Agatha and Penelope have to decide if they’ll keep doing the same things they have always have or if they can take some risks, including with their hearts.
Carrie: I enjoyed the fact that Agatha and Penelope are older women, and I enjoyed Agatha’s struggles with her radical son and assistant. I felt that their ages allowed them to have more rich and interesting lives and emotional experiences than younger heroines, and made it easier to fully portray them as independent people aside from romantic interests. In so many stories, people are actively looking for romance, and it was a nice change to see these people trip into it accidentally long after they had written off any possibility of romance. I adore many young romance heroines, and many stories in which they are actively looking for love, so I’m not suggesting that those storylines or characters are flawed. However, having older characters brings a refreshingly different perspective and focus.
Tara: Yes, I totally agree. Although there are some f/f romances with older characters, it’s pretty rare to have them in historicals (one other I can think of is Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan). In this case, I liked what that meant, not only for the romance, but also for their individual character arcs. For example, when we meet Agatha, she’s exhausted and lonely, and seems to be counting down the days until she can give the shop to her son and just…I don’t know. I guess die so she can rejoin her husband? She appears to have an abundance of stress and little to no joy in her life until she meets Penelope. Their friendship rapidly becomes both vital and invigorating for Agatha, giving her something to be excited about, even if she believes Penelope would never be interested in her.
Penelope, on the other hand, almost seems like her life hasn’t started. Yes, she’s married, but her husband is rarely with her. She’s still living in her childhood home, her parents dead and all of her brothers having dispersed out into their own lives. Penelope has many friends in Melliton and loves taking care of many of their hives, but she’s so kind that she backs down easily at the first sign of conflict. Seeing her grow strong and learn how to stand up for herself at the age of 45 resonated with me, because I know so many people around me (as well as myself) who are only learning how to do that as we’re getting older. The scene where her growth is shown in all its glory is absolute perfection.
Carrie: The romance has a realistic problem and a realistic solution, and Agatha and Penelope’s interactions with each other are delightful. I was very invested in these women and their romance.
Tara: Oh yes, I was too. It worked especially well for me that we got to see them develop a strong friendship alongside their romantic feelings. It gave them time to figure themselves out and work through the emotional obstacles keeping them apart.
What did you think about the historical side of things? I don’t actually know a ton about the period, so I appreciated learning about the conflict between the king and queen. I also learned a lot about 19th century printing and beekeeping, which was sometimes interesting and sometimes a little too in depth for me. I got lost in the names of some of the items involved in printmaking and skimmed ahead in one scene where we learn how pages get printed, but I suspect it would be exciting for people who are into the history of printmaking (please don’t tell my former “History of the Book” professor I said that, since I’ve clearly forgotten everything I learned twenty years ago).
Carrie: Some readers may dislike all the technical and historical details because they do slow down what is an already slow book. However, I gobbled them up, since I belong to the odd and miniscule group of readers who read the chapters in Moby Dick about whales and chapters in Les Miserables about sewer systems. If you like nerding out about printing and bookkeeping and Regency royal divorces, then you’ll enjoy this.
I did have a problem with the pacing. Even given all the time spent on things like the best way to relocate a beehive, this was a very slow burn romance. I honestly was sure our ladies would get busy right around the forty-percent mark of the book but it takes much longer for them to so much as kiss. I enjoyed the slow burn for a while, but by the book’s halfway point it seemed ridiculous that the women hadn’t declared their love yet. There’s slow burn, and then there’s glacial—and this was too glacial for me.
Tara: YES! THANK YOU! I had the same thought around the forty-percent mark and finally slacked you at sixty percent because I was starting to get a little mad that they hadn’t kissed yet and I had to tell someone. The funny thing is that I had the opposite reaction with The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, because I thought the leads in that one got together so early that it took all the tension out of the book. In this case, Agatha and Penelope take so long that I want to shove them in a room and tell them it’s time for seven minutes in heaven.
Honestly, this is my main gripe with the book. I don’t mind that the pacing is generally slow, because it made for a nice place to escape to during a hectic, scary week. I just needed the romance to pick up a notch or three because it was frustrating to see them take so long to get their shit together and make out already.
Carrie: Another thing that didn’t work for me was the…
He’s not shamed for being gay, but he is shamed for leaving Penelope in a lonely position. However, it was my understanding that Penelope knew that he was gay when they got married. The marriage had advantages for both of them. So why is he seen as inconsiderate?
Tara: I have thoughts on this!
I don’t think Penelope thought he was inconsiderate and she doesn’t really join in shaming him. As you say, she knew what she was getting into and it was mutually beneficial. Agatha doesn’t understand all of that, however, because all she can see is how lonely Penelope is, rattling around in that house with all of her family gone and only a grieving, mercurial friend to keep her company. I actually liked when Agatha tore a strip out of him because she was finally outwardly showing how much she cared for Penelope.
Carrie: On the other hand, I loved the sensual detail that is built into the book throughout—common food served generously and well, the noise the bees make, the different kinds of honey, fabrics, the designs coming in and out of Agatha’s shop. It’s a very physical book about practical people. I thought the use of language was sublime.
Tara: I couldn’t agree more. There’s something very precise about the language in this book that hits the spot for me. Aside from the examples you just gave, my hands-down favourite is when Penelope is upset about something the local Lady does, so Agatha immediately wants to burn down the Lady’s home.
Flood stepped away and jammed her hat on top of her head again. The muslin veil came down, hiding her face. “Shall we see to the hives?”
“Of course,” Agatha replied. When what she wanted to say was: While you see to the hives, I’ll be at the hall, setting the whole miserable place on fire in the name of thwarted, impossible love. Her breath rattled like a tinderbox in her lungs.
As though one would offer arson instead of a bouquet, to win a lover’s heart. High crimes were probably better suited to a betrothal than a mere courting gift: you couldn’t just start burning things down in hopes the other person found it romantic. You’d want to be sure.
It’s just so perfectly constructed. *chef’s kiss*
Overall, this book does a lot of things right. The character work is deep and brilliant, the historical context is plentiful and guides readers along even if they know nothing, and the writing is so beautifully done. Like I mentioned above, the overall pace of the story didn’t bother me, just the pace of the romance. If that would have been sped up, this would be a near perfect book for me. I still recommend it, but you need to go into this expecting the slowest of slow burns.