The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

When I first read The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, I remembered being enchanted by the writing, the world building, and the gorgeous, tender romance at the heart of the story. It was one of the smartest historical romances I’d read in a long while, and it fed both my heart and my brain. In the same spirit, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, while markedly different in pace and character, satisfies in the same way.

I’m a sucker for first lines, and enjoyed the way Waite’s novel catches the attention with these:

“The corpses were giving Agatha the most trouble. They looked too much like people.”

Besides grabbing the reader, the opening is excellent as an introduction to Agatha Griffin, a forty-five year old widow who runs a print house. She worries about her son’s penchant for staying out all night, as well as his inability to keep his hands off her brilliant assistant, Eliza. She also worries about keeping the print press going given the political climate, the oppressive taxation, and her son’s lack of business sense.

When she finds a beehive in her warehouse, it’s the last problem in the world she needs.

In comes Penelope Flood, a gorgeous beekeeper who helps her remove the beehive. Living in a small village where everyone knows too much about each other, Penelope spends much of her time with her bees, while her husband and brother work as whalers and are often at sea. When she and Agatha meet, it sets off a friendship that grows into love.

It takes time for the relationship between two women to develop–they don’t actually share a first kiss until three-quarters of the way through the book. However, what we do get is a great deal of deep connection and pining, evolving into a smoldering passion that sweeps Agatha and Penelope away. In the meantime, there are subplots involving Queen Caroline and Penelope’s village, as well as discourses on the politics of the time, the workings of print presses, and the art of beekeeping. I enjoyed the political commentary about the importance of a free press and the need to maintain its independence from the state, a topic of direct relevance to the times we live in today.

It also thrilled my 40-ish heart to see older protagonists depicted in romance, and especially in a Sapphic romance as this one, where both women have lived rich and interesting lives and are no longer at their peak. It’s an important story that isn’t often told. Even with the obvious constraints on the lives of Agatha and Penelope, both because of their gender as well as their sexual orientations, these are two fully-realized women who also find a way to be happy.

As a corollary to this, secondary queer characters in both novels have satisfying relationships that are not shrouded in secrecy and shame, but accepted by others. It is high time to modify our understanding of queer relationships throughout history, how much more common they were, especially Sapphic ones, which had a bit more space within which to be carried out.

Waite makes a point of centering women’s occupations, and illustrating their value. She demonstrates this brilliantly in the The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics and continues to expose the reader in this novel. The entire arena of female engagement is revealed, from print shops and beekeeping, to poetry and political activism. The story of Queen Caroline weaves throughout the fabric of the story, providing a wider historical arc against which Agatha and Penelope’s love story develops. The centuries change, but what matters to women doesn’t.

If you are looking for an intelligent, layered, historical romance featuring women of a certain age, then you will enjoy the book. It works well at the level of historical fiction, though as a romance, it does take a minute for it to take off. But when it gets there, the passion is wild and gorgeous. It is a romance that rewards a reader’s patience.