The son of a poor widow, François Burnens is overwhelmed with his good fortune when he is hired to assist the gentleman-scientist, François Huber. Blind since the age of 19, Huber studies bees, helped by his wife in his observations at their Geneva home. Now expecting their second child, the couple realizes that she must concentrate on the family. Through Burnens's diary, from 1785 to 1794, the young man grows as a scientist, a writer, and a human being. Charles Bonnet and other scientists visit in person or in citation.

The domestic drama of the home plays against a backdrop of the menacing turbulence in nearby France. Burnens' admiration, respect and pity for Huber keeps him in the modestly-paid employ for nine long years. But his fascination with an artistically talented young woman shows him that his situation as a valued servant must come to an end.


Based on the true work and biography of the remarkable scientist, Huber (1750-1832), and his assistant Burnens (1866-1828), this graceful novel explores their ingenious experiments and their personal lives. Together they were the first to establish mechanisms in pollen gathering, gender determination, wax manufacture, hive harmony, heat maintenance, cooling, mating, swarming, and killing. Observations of the social life of bees are mapped on the social stresses of the unusual extended household and the much greater political and social stresses of the French Revolution, its mob, leaders, and victims. Workers, drones, and queens are central characters in all three tales.

An overriding question is the apparently inexplicable departure of Burnens from Huber, despite their excellent relationship. Gordon introduces a sexual tension in the home (hive?) between Burnens and his patron's wife, and she attributes his departure to the desire to marry and the need to find independent sustaining work.


This book won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2004), ISBN 0747270414


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