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Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan

Mad Honey is the story of teenagers in a small country town who have both escaped past trauma and have fallen in love. It is told from the perspectives of two women: alternating between the narrative of Olivia, the mother of eighteen-year-old Asher, and the narrative of Lily, his girlfriend and the new girl in town. Twelve years ago, Olivia fled an abusive past and returned to her childhood home, took on her father’s beekeeping business and became a single mother to her only son. Lily and her mother have more recently settled in the town, with Lily’s scars bearing testimony to a painful past.

Olivia’s life is upended one day when Asher is late home. A call from the police station informs her that Lily is dead. Asher is charged with murder and a good part of the story revolves around Olivia’s staunch support of her son while questioning whether she does in fact really know who he is. Olivia describes how events unfold from Lily’s death to Asher’s indictment and on to the court case, but she also includes her recollections of life before as she attempts to make sense of events. Interleaved with this, Lily’s description of events leading up to her death kept me hooked as I tried to see where the court case was heading.

Jodi Picoult has written so many novels with mysteries to be unravelled and secrets to be uncovered, often in the context of a crime followed by a legal and courtroom drama. So it seems that this novel, even though co-written with Jennifer Finney Boylan, follows that familiar path. The sense of déjà vu becomes pronounced when defence lawyer Jordan McAfee, a player in previous courtroom dramas reappears. The minor characters play predictable roles: the kind-hearted small town detective; Lily’s drunken father; Asher’s cold-hearted one; and the solid, expert and relentlessly reliable lawyer, Jordan. However, both Olivia’s and Lily’s narrative are heart–wrenching and believable. Young love – its connection and its misunderstandings – is tenderly described. A mother’s gut-wrenching fear, dogged loyalty, nagging guilt, and deep suspicion of her own son are believably drawn. There is much to be learnt from medical experts’ evidence in court and about the processes of indictment and prosecution. What is more, in keeping with the title Mad Honey, added to this is a wealth of information about bees, their habits and society and beekeeping.

To avoid spoilers and to avoid the reader making a snap judgment about the characters, it is enough to say that co-writer Jennifer Finney Boylan's own past lends authenticity to the situation. Mad Honey is more than just another relationship drama and murder mystery in the style we have come to expect from Jodi Picoult. This story is compelling for the way it highlights the struggles of young people to become who they are and even more to be loved for who they are. I was also drawn into the endeavours of both mothers to protect and safeguard their children and then to let them go.

Reviewer: Clare Lyon

Allen & Unwin


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