Read Mad Honey: A Novel Online
Authors: Jodi Picoult,Jennifer Finney Boylan
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the authors’ imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2022 by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
is a registered trademark and the colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Picoult, Jodi, author. | Boylan, Jennifer Finney, author.
Title: Mad honey: a novel / Jodi Picoult & Jennifer Finney Boylan.
Description: First edition. | New York: Ballantine Books, 
Identifiers: LCCN 2021055844 (print) | LCCN 2021055845 (ebook) | ISBN 9781984818386 (hardcover) | ISBN 9781984818393 (ebook)
Subjects: LCGFT: Novels.
Classification: LCC PS3566.I372 M33 2022 (print) | LCC PS3566.I372 (ebook) | DDC 813/.54—dc23/eng/20220127
LC record available at
LC ebook record available at
International ISBN 9780593500965
Ebook ISBN 9781984818393
Book design by Elizabeth Rendfleisch, adapted for ebook
Art by Adobe Stock/
Cover design: Lisa Amoroso
Cover images: Getty Images
Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
DECEMBER 7, 2018
The day of
From the moment I knew I was having a baby, I wanted it to be a girl. I wandered the aisles of department stores, touching doll-size dresses and tiny sequined shoes. I pictured us with matching nail polish—me, who’d never had a manicure in my life. I imagined the day her fairy hair was long enough to capture in pigtails, her nose pressed to the glass of a school bus window; I saw her first crush, prom dress, heartbreak. Each vision was a bead on a rosary of future memories; I prayed daily.
As it turned out, I was not a zealot…only a martyr.
When I gave birth, and the doctor announced the baby’s sex, I did not believe it at first. I had done such a stellar job of convincing myself of what I
that I completely forgot what I
. But when I held Asher, slippery as a minnow, I was relieved.
Better to have a boy, who would never be someone’s victim.
MOST PEOPLE IN
Adams, New Hampshire, know me by name, and those who don’t, know to steer clear of my home. It’s often that way for beekeepers—like firefighters, we willingly put ourselves into situations that are the stuff of others’ nightmares. Honeybees are far less vindictive than their yellow jacket cousins, but people can’t often tell the difference, so anything that stings and buzzes comes to be seen as a potential hazard. A few hundred yards past the antique
Cape, my colonies form a semicircular rainbow of hives, and most of the spring and summer the bees zip between them and the acres of blossoms they pollinate, humming a warning.
I grew up on a small farm that had been in my father’s family for generations: an apple orchard that, in the fall, sold cider and donuts made by my mother and, in the summer, had pick-your-own strawberry fields. We were land-rich and cash-poor. My father was an apiarist by hobby, as was his father before him, and so on, all the way back to the first McAfee who was an original settler of Adams. It is just far enough away from the White Mountain National Forest to have affordable real estate. The town has one traffic light, one bar, one diner, a post office, a town green that used to be a communal sheep grazing area, and Slade Brook—a creek whose name was misprinted in a 1789 geological survey map, but which stuck.
Brook, as it should have been written, was named for the eponymous rock mined from its banks, which was shipped far and wide to become tombstones.
was the surname of the local undertaker and village drunk, who had a tendency to wander off when he was on a bender, and who ironically killed
by drowning in six inches of water in the creek.
When I first brought Braden to meet my parents, I told him that story. He had been driving at the time; his grin flashed like lightning.
buried the undertaker?
Back then, we had been living outside of DC, where Braden was a resident in cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins and I worked at the National Zoo, trying to cobble together enough money for a graduate program in zoology. We’d only been together three months, but I had already moved in with him. We were visiting my parents that weekend because I knew, viscerally, that Braden Fields was
On that first trip back home, I had been so sure of what my future would hold. I was wrong on all counts. I never expected to be an apiarist like my father; I never thought I’d wind up sleeping in my childhood bedroom once again as an adult; I never imagined I’d settle down on a farm my older brother, Jordan, and I once could not wait to leave. I married Braden; he got a fellowship at Mass General;
we moved to Boston; I was a doctor’s wife. Then, almost a year to the day of my wedding anniversary, my father didn’t come home one evening after checking his hives. My mother found him, dead of a heart attack in the tall grass, bees haloing his head.
My mother sold the piece of land that held our apple orchard to a couple from Brooklyn. She kept the strawberry fields but was thoroughly at a loss when it came to my father’s hives. Since my brother was busy with a high-powered legal career and my mother was allergic to bees, the apiary fell to me. For five years, I drove from Boston to Adams every week to take care of the colonies. After Asher was born, I’d bring him with me, leaving him in the company of my mother while I checked the hives. I fell in love with beekeeping, the slow-motion flow of pulling a frame out of a hive, the Where’s Waldo? search for the queen. I expanded from five colonies to fifteen. I experimented with bee genetics with colonies from Russia, from Slovenia, from Italy. I signed pollination contracts with the Brooklynites and three other local fruit orchards, setting up new hives on their premises. I harvested, processed, and sold honey and beeswax products at farmers’ markets from the Canadian border to the suburbs of Massachusetts. I became, almost by accident, the first commercially successful beekeeper in the history of apiarist McAfees. By the time Asher and I moved permanently to Adams, I knew I might never get rich doing this, but I could make a living.
My father taught me that beekeeping is both a burden and a privilege. You don’t bother the bees unless they need your help, and you help them when they need it. It’s a feudal relationship: protection in return for a percentage of the fruits of their labors.
He taught me that if a body is easily crushed, it develops a weapon to prevent that from happening.
He taught me that sudden movements get you stung.
I took these lessons a bit too much to heart.
On the day of my father’s funeral, and years later, on the day of my mother’s, I told the bees. It’s an old tradition to inform them of a death in the family; if a beekeeper dies, and the bees aren’t asked to stay on with their new master, they’ll leave. In New Hampshire, the
custom is to sing, and the news has to rhyme. So I draped each colony with black crepe, knocked softly, crooned the truth. My beekeeping net became a funeral veil. The hive might well have been a coffin.
BY THE TIME
I come downstairs that morning, Asher is in the kitchen. We have a deal, whoever gets up first makes the coffee. My mug still has a wisp of steam rising. He is shoveling cereal into his mouth, absorbed in his phone.
“Morning,” I say, and he grunts in response.
For a moment, I let myself stare at him. It’s hard to believe that the soft-centered little boy who would cry when his hands got sticky with propolis from the hives can now lift a super full of forty pounds of honey as if it weighs no more than his hockey stick. Asher is over six feet tall, but even as he was growing, he was never ungainly. He moves with the kind of grace you find in wildcats, the ones that can steal away a kitten or a chick before you even realize they’ve gone. Asher has my blond hair and the same ghost-green eyes, for which I have always been grateful. He carries his father’s last name, but if I also had to see Braden every time I looked at my son, it would be that much harder.
I catalog the breadth of his shoulders, the damp curls at the nape of his neck; the way the tendons in his forearms shift and play as he scrolls through his texts. It’s shocking, sometimes, to be confronted with
when a second ago he sat on my shoulders, trying to pull down a star and unravel a thread of the night.
“No practice this morning?” I ask, taking a sip of my coffee. Asher has been playing hockey as long as we’ve lived here; he skates as effortlessly as he walks. He was made captain as a junior and reelected this year, as a senior. I never can remember whether they have rink time before school or after, as it changes daily.
His lips tug with a slight smile, and he types a response into his phone, but doesn’t answer.
“Hello?” I say. I slip a piece of bread into the ancient toaster, which
is jerry-rigged with duct tape that occasionally catches on fire. Breakfast for me is always toast and honey, never in short supply.
“I guess you have practice later,” I try, and then provide the answer that Asher doesn’t. “Why yes, Mom, thanks for taking such an active interest in my life.”
I fold my arms across my boxy cable-knit sweater. “Am I too old to wear this tube top?” I ask lightly.
“I’m sorry I won’t be here for dinner, but I’m running away with a cult.”
I narrow my eyes. “I posted that naked photo of you as a toddler on Instagram for Throwback Thursday.”
Asher grunts noncommittally. My toast pops up; I spread it with honey and slide into the chair directly across from Asher. “I’d really prefer that you not use my Mastercard to pay for your Pornhub subscription.”
His eyes snap to mine so fast I think I can hear his neck crack. “
“Oh, hey,” I say smoothly. “Nice to have your attention.”
Asher shakes his head, but he puts down his phone. “I didn’t use your Mastercard,” he says.
“I used your Amex.”
I burst out laughing.
wear a tube top,” he says. “Jesus.”
“How could I
?” Asher winces. “Just for the record, nobody else’s mother talks about porn over breakfast.”
“Aren’t you the lucky one, then.”
“Well,” he says, shrugging. “Yeah.” He lifts his coffee mug, clinks it to mine, and sips.
I don’t know what other parents’ relationships are like with their children, but the one between me and Asher was forged in fire and, maybe for that reason, is invincible. Even though he’d rather be caught dead than have me throw my arms around him after a
winning game, when it’s just the two of us, we are our own universe, a moon and a planet tied together in orbit. Asher may not have grown up in a household with two parents, but the one he has would fight to the death for him.
“Speaking of porn,” I reply, “how’s Lily?”
He chokes on his coffee. “If you love me, you will never say that sentence again.”
Asher’s girlfriend is tiny, dark, with a smile so wide it completely changes the landscape of her face. If Asher is strength, then she is whimsy—a sprite who keeps him from taking himself too seriously; a question mark at the end of his predictable, popular life. Asher’s had no shortage of romantic entanglements with girls he’s known since kindergarten. Lily is a newcomer to town.
This fall, they have been inseparable. Usually, at dinner, it’s
Lily did this
Lily said that
“I haven’t seen her around this week,” I say.
Asher’s phone buzzes. His thumbs fly, responding.
“Oh, to be young and in love,” I muse. “And unable to go thirty seconds without communicating.”
“I’m texting Dirk. He broke a lace and wants to know if I have extra.”
One of the guys on his hockey team. I have no actual proof, but I’ve always felt like Dirk is the kid who oozes charm whenever he’s in front of me and then, when I’m gone, says something vile, like
Your mom is hot, bro
“Will Lily be at your game on Saturday?” I ask. “She should come over afterward for dinner.”
Asher nods and jams his phone in his pocket. “I have to go.”
“You haven’t even finished your cereal—”
“I’m going to be late.”
He takes a long last swallow of coffee, slides his backpack over his shoulder, and grabs his car keys from the bowl on the kitchen counter. He drives a 1988 Jeep he bought with the salary he made as a counselor at hockey camp.
“Take a coat!” I call, as he is walking out the door. “It’s—”
His breath fogs in the air; he slides behind the steering wheel and turns the ignition.
“Snowing,” I finish.
DECEMBER IS WHEN
beekeepers catch their breath. The fall is a flurry of activity, starting with the honey harvest, then managing mite loads, and getting the bees ready to survive a New Hampshire winter. This involves mixing up a heavy sugar syrup that gets poured into a hive top feeder, then wrapping the entire hive for insulation before the first cold snap. The bees conserve their energy in the winter, and so should the apiarist.
I’ve never been very good with downtime.
There’s snow on the ground, and that’s enough to send me up to the attic to find the box of Christmas decorations. They’re the same ones my mother used when I was little—ceramic snowmen for the kitchen table; electric candles to set in each window at night, a string of lights for the mantel. There’s a second box, too, with our stockings and the ornaments for the tree, but it’s tradition that Asher and I hang those together. Maybe this weekend we will cut down our tree. We could do it after his game on Saturday, with Lily.
I’m not ready to lose him.
The thought stops me in my tracks. Even if we do not invite Lily to come choose a tree with us—to decorate it as he tells her the story behind the stick reindeer ornament he made in preschool or the impossibly tiny baby shoes, both his and mine, that we always hang on the uppermost branches—soon another will join our party of two. It is what I want most for Asher—the relationship I don’t have. I know that love isn’t a zero-sum game, but I’m selfish enough to hope he’s all mine for a little while longer.