Susan reviews The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Olivia Waite’s The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is the latest in the Feminine Pursuits series, and just like last time, I’m in love. The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows explores family, the perceived legitimacy of relationships, and the hazards of marriage through the trial of Caroline of Brunswick, and the complicated relationships going on in a small seaside town.

Agatha Griffin is a sharp business woman, running her printing shop after the death of her husband and trying to keep her radical son from getting himself arrested. Penelope Flood is a beekeeper with strong opinions and an unfortunate desire to please, who Agatha turns to when she discovers that bees have taken over her warehouse. Together, they care for bees, attempt political change, and mutually pine. As a sucker for mutual pining, this got me exactly where I lived – even though I had a horrified moment near the end of the book when I realised they didn’t know they were pining.

The pacing was a little off for me; there were dramatic points where it seemed like the characters were angry about a (missing, expensive) snuff-box or (missing, beloved) statues and about to investigate – and then the chapter would end and the subject was dropped for another few chapters. The time between was used very well, mostly for slowly building Agatha and Penelope’s relationship, or bringing in more of the political context, but it was jarring to go from justified fury to peaceful scenes with bees and printing. I had a similar problem with the historical explanations and scene-setting; it was useful, but sometimes hard to tell which character was narrating or where it fit into the story because it was functionally a recitation of facts.

It was very satisfying once the story got into the voices of the characters and their political activism; reading Agatha’s hope that things might change, in 2020 of all years, was emotional and relatable! The story centres people with no right to vote at that time (women and men who don’t own property), so the character’s ability to directly influence proceedings was minimal, but the activism, organisation, and use of public sentiment felt realistic to what’s going on now.

Marriage and divorce are one of the anchors of this book; it explores the hazards of marriage for women through different relationships. George IV trying to discredit and divorce his wife is rooting the story in time; there are subplots about abusive husbands, the social pressure on Penelope to behave in a way that reflected well on her husband, the sheer luck involved in Agatha having a husband that respected her, the pressure Agatha feels to have her son get married despite her own reservations about marriage as an institution, a widow with no legal rights after her female lover dies… All of these secondary and tertiary relationships are well presented and developed, and all of them circle back to this theme.

One of my favourite things about the Feminine Pursuits series is that it explicitly argues that marriage isn’t the only avenue for formalising relationships. Characters who want ways to legally bind themselves to each other when there aren’t any publicly acceptable avenues find them or make them, which is so validating to read! There are so many people in this book who are making different choices about how they want to live and be known – and the book doesn’t shy away from how those choices are made easier by wealth and privilege. It’s genuinely heart-warming to see all of the ways characters commit to and choose each other! I’d also like to point out that these decisions aren’t only between queer couples – there are couples who do have the option of legitimacy and respectability through marriage, who choose individual freedoms instead. It means a lot, especially when as recently as 2019, RITA award panels were rejecting queer historicals as “not romances” because the characters couldn’t get married at the end.

There are some cameos and references to The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics but for the most part The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows does stand on its own. There is one scene involving Catherine from the previous book that might not be clear if you don’t know who she is or what her relationship to Agatha’s shop is, but for the most part it works! (Plus, as a book nerd: the details of how the printing shop works are great and I love them.)

But the best part of the book is how funny it is! There were several points where I had to put it down and cackle – Agatha solidly roasting the concept of gal pals in a book set in the 1820s was such a brilliant moment! And Agatha and Penelope consistently going “Oh no” about how much they adore each other was delicious.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows brings through all of the beauty and political commentary that I loved in The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, while focusing it in a different direction. I absolutely recommend it.

Caution warnings: Homophobia, spousal abuse, political demonstrations, morality policing, military-enforced censorship

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is a historical romance that revolves around two queer women creating a space for themselves in art and science. Lucy Muchelney’s lover has just married someone else, and her brother is trying to get her to give up on astronomy; her only recourse is to fling herself on the mercies of Lady Catherine St Day, who’s seeking a translator for a french astronomy text so that she can wash her hands of her late husband’s legacy once and for all. Lucy, with her excellent French and understanding of mathematics and astronomy is the perfect person for the job! … If she can convince the scientific establishment to accept that.

I adored The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, but it was so stressful as a reading experience! I was absolutely certain the whole way that there couldn’t be any true catharsis in it, because every sympathetic character is up against structural oppression and the sheer societal weight of white men and their gatekeeping. Over and over people who aren’t white men get dismissed and undermined, both professionally and personally, and it’s as infuriating in fiction as it is in real life! Especially because Olivia Waite does such a good job of showing the way that this form of bigotry wields politeness and reputation as weapons against marginalised people having the audacity to, say, want credit for their work! Or to be accepted as experts in their fields! But there is some catharsis – not just individual victories, characters explicitly doing the work to make science and art more welcoming, and I’ll accept that as a start.

It helps that the characters have believe in each other throughout the book. Lucy believes that Catherine’s embroidery is as much art as anything her brother has done with paint and canvas, and Catherine knows that Lucy – and many other marginalised people she knows, including herself! – are knowledgable scientists or talented artists, and while she might not always know what the best way to encourage those skills, she tries. The supportive relationships are such a good counterpoint to the Polite Science Society.

(And the descriptions are so lush! They give the book so much texture, and the characters so much depth just from what details they notice. Honestly it’s worth reading just for the gifts Catherine makes for Lucy.)

But it’s also a romance, so let’s talk about that! Lucy and Catherine are both freshly out of terrible relationships; Lucy’s ex-girlfriend is petty and manipulative even after they’ve broken up, while Catherine’s late husband was explicitly abusive. There’s no abuse explicitly on page, but Catherine’s reactions to relationships are heavily influenced by the abuse, and are completely believable to me! But if you’re in the market for a romance that’s supportive and kind, where the power difference between characters is actually acknowledged, and the characters find beautiful ways to demonstrate their commitment to each other, this is the book for you! I adored both of the characters and the ways that they tried to make their worlds and interests more accessible for each other! The ways that they work together warmed me right through. Honestly, my biggest frustration with the romance is that there’s a conflict between them near the end that could be solved by actually talking to each other that they just don’t deal with, which felt a little artificial considering that up until that point they’d tried to communicate! But on the whole, the romance was wonderful!

At its heart, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is about recognition and community. At every turn, the characters are asked to choose whose recognition they value – whose recognition is valuable – and what they want their community to be. Watching them answer those questions and discover a community that they didn’t even know was available is beautiful, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

[Caution warnings: racism, misogyny, past abuse, structural oppression, manipulative exes, dubious consent in backstory]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.