This one works well as a segue into our next state. Sugar, the main character, is from South Carolina, and so parts of the novel take place there, which gave me a hankering to cover another southern state. But most of the book takes place in New York City, and it’s a great one for our challenge–Sugar’s Alphabet City neighborhood comes to life and is rich with both the places and the people who live there.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. This is our last book for New York, and probably my favorite for downstate.
The author, Sarah-Kate Lynch, is from New Zealand, but according to her About the Book note to readers, she’s also a travel writer and has been able to spend time in both of the settings of The Wedding Bees. Her love for both New York City and Charleston comes through in the lovely descriptions right from the beginning.
Sugar’s bees hummed steadily in her lap as she wound down the window and strained to look up at the Flores Street apartment building. It was five stories tall, its perky orange brickwork hiding beneath a robust layer of dust. A fire escape zigzagged down the middle like an exotic scar, and a pink stoop below the red front door gave the impression the building was poking its tongue out, perhaps at the faded bunch of motley balloons tied to the basement’s ivy-covered railing.
She introduces us to Alphabet City–the neighborhood Sugar moves into:
Despite being little more than a stone’s throw away from Manhattan’s famous overpopulated canyons, Flores Street was surprisingly charming: a leafy cobbled dead-end lane nestled in Alphabet City just south of Tompkins Square Park. Once she had them settled, the bees would love it down here. Far enough away from the chaos of those uptown skyscrapers, they would have a smorgasbord of gardens, parks, street trees and window boxes upon which to feast. There was space, there was sunshine; it was splashing around them now, dancing right down at street level through the new growth on the linden trees.
And while there are lots of beautiful–almost gushing–descriptions, Lynch gives us glimpses of the quirkiness of New York as well, as when Sugar alludes to the local shops:
“I’ve never lived around the corner from a knishery before. Plus if I get an accordion and it breaks, I know just where to get it fixed. … Let’s give up on this one and drive around the block.” She wanted to get another look at the Indian spice bazaar and the pickle shop anyway. “A whole shop just for pickles? You don’t find that in every neighborhood.”
And not just the shops, but the variety of people as well:
[Sugar and Theo found] a bench in Sara D. Roosevelt Park where a group of Brazilian boys were kicking a football around while three elderly ladies did tai chi moves at a glacial pace behind them. “You’ve just got to love this city, don’t you?” said Theo as they sat.
There are fabulous views from Sugar’s rooftop studio and balcony:
From wherever she stood inside the tiny space she could see out across the neighboring rooftops; north to the treetops of Tompkins Square Park, south to the taller towers of the Lower East Side and east to the gritty glitz of the Alphabet City skyscape and beyond. This wasn’t the ordinary Empire State or Chrysler building vista that she’d seen sprouting up above the other skyscrapers in television shows and movie opening credits. This was a distinctly downtown horizon spiked with water towers, sprinkled with satellite dishes, scarred with spindly staircases and squat air-conditioning units, the occasional rooftop garden greenery dazzling for all the world like scattered emeralds.
And since she’s a beekeeper, Sugar (and thus Lynch) focuses on the green spaces–which is really refreshing. I knew that beekeeping was becoming more popular in New York City and other urban areas (as is keeping chickens), but the NYC Beekeeper’s Association has some wonderful information on how to fit this hobby, which is generally still seen as rural, into an urban setting–like tips for maintaining good relations with your neighbors.
Lynch gives us some great examples of that famous New York City crankiness, such as this exchange with the bartender at a local tavern where Theo and Sugar go:
“Are you open?” Theo asked him. “Did you break in?” “No.” “Then we’re open.”
Overall The Wedding Bees by Sarah-Kate Lynch was a wonderful–if sugar-coated–view of New York City, and I’m so glad this one made it onto our list. It makes a great combination with one of the grittier young adult ones we read, like Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older. And Lynch’s descriptions of South Carolina made me want to visit–which also makes me want to read some of her travel writing, since she’s obviously good at it!
Sugar had grown up in Charleston, South Carolina: possibly the most luscious of the world’s garden cities. Behind every wrought-iron gate or exposed-brick wall in the picturesque peninsula blooming between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers lay a sweet-scented treasure trove of camellias, roses, gardenias, magnolias, tea olives, azaleas and jasmine, everywhere, jasmine. With its lush greenery, opulent vines, sumptuous hedgerows and candy-colored window boxes, it was no wonder the city’s native sons and daughters believed it to be the most beautiful place on earth.
Which brings me to the next step on our reading challenge journey. We’ll be visiting North Carolina next; I’ll be back soon with our new state list.