Years of hard work are about to pay off for Richard and Ann. Richard is a chef who’s just weeks away from opening his own restaurant in Los Angeles with his business partner, Javi, a hotshot chef with a flair for culinary experimentation. Ann is also on the brink of professional success. She’s a cutthroat lawyer at a big firm and thinks the time has finally arrived for her to make partner. For years, she’s put in long hours and tried to succeed not only to rise through the ranks of the firm, but to support her husband as he paid his dues. It’s taken a personal toll — she doesn’t even like being a lawyer — but both of them know that the restaurant will give them a new type of freedom.
Overnight, thanks to Javi’s unscrupulous actions, their dream crumbles and they find themselves flying to an island in the middle of the South Pacific to get away from all their troubles. They wind up on a remote atoll run by Loren, a drunken Frenchman. For a couple thousand a day, they get an upgraded Robinson Crusoe experience: a small private hut with no electricity, phone, or internet connection. The only other people of significance on the island are Titi and Cooked, two locals who are betrothed to one another and run the daily operations; Dex Cooper, the aging frontman of the rock band Prospero; and Wende, Dex’s young and attractive muse.
“Mama, are you a virgin?”
When readers first meet Jean “Stevie” Stevenson, she’s an innocent Black girl growing up in 1960s Southside Chicago. In the early 1960s, when Stevie is still young enough to do as she’s told without question, she soaks in a lot of different messages about her culture and the way she looks: her hair should be straightened and she mustn’t speak in her peers’ casual vernacular. She gets a little older, and now there are skin lightening creams to consider (there’s also that saying, “coffee will make you black,” to keep kids away from the beverage: the last thing anyone wants to be is dark-skinned). Her mother is strict and religious, intent on keeping her daughter as sheltered as possible so that she can have a shot at moving up in the world; there’s little room for Stevie to explore ideas on her own terms.
Stevie doesn’t have any friends, but when miscommunication occurs and she naively admits to something, she suddenly has the attention of two popular girls that her mother doesn’t approve of. This is the first step in Stevie’s coming-of-age story. The rest is set against a backdrop of rapid social change and political awareness; Stevie and her peers get to experience the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in middle and high school. It’s a nightmare Stevie’s straightlaced mother, who cannot wrap her head around all these radical ideas floating around in her daughter’s head, but it’s an important part of Stevie’s life. Suddenly, Black is beautiful.
A community on a remote island of Newfoundland has been in gradual decline for decades. Without any real job prospects or potential for growth, young people move away from Sweetland and build their futures in bigger cities; now, the town is mostly populated by an older generation that is dying away. The Canadian government has offered everyone in the community $100,000 to resettle elsewhere on the condition that everyone in the town must sign the contract and leave. Once they do, the government will cease service to the island; ferry services bringing goods will cease, electricity will be cut off, and homes will be boarded up and left to the elements. A ghost town will be created.
Almost everyone in town immediately agrees to sign the contract. It’s obvious that their way of life is dying. Most of the people have few ties to Sweetland; their children have long since moved to the mainland. There’s only one main holdout: Moses Sweetland, an old fisherman whose ancestors founded the island. Without him agreeing to the resettlement package, no one can receive any money. His stubbornness on the matter doesn’t make him very popular with his neighbors.
In refusing the offer, Moses looks back on his life and the people he’s grown up with (some of whom now shun him). He won’t say why he won’t leave, but the thought of Sweetland becoming a ghost town, its residents and history forgotten, obviously bothers him. He spends his days with his niece, Clara, and her autistic son, Jesse, a curious boy with encyclopedic knowledge of subjects that interest him. They’re the last of Moses’s family, although Jesse’s invisible friend happens to be Moses’s brother, who died as a teenager in a fishing accident that Moses rarely speaks of. It’s on account of Jesse that Moses pushed himself into the twenty-first century; he has a laptop, an internet connection, and a Facebook account in order to communicate with Jesse whenever they’re not together.
A family of three leaves everything behind in Mexico to move to the United States. Arturo and Alma Rivera’s teenage daughter, Maribel, was in an accident that resulted in brain trauma; she will be attending a high school in Newark, Delaware equipped for her special needs. Her parents, once loving and close to one another, are now dealing with a strain in their relationship. On top of struggling to meet their daughter’s new needs, they are now at a loss. Everything about their new home — from the language to the weather to the food — is foreign to them.
The Riveras eventually find their own little niche in the community. While her daughter is at school and her husband is at work picking mushrooms in nearby Pennsylvania, Maribel’s mother becomes good friends with a Panamanian neighbor and begins taking English classes as at a local immigrant center. She’s still terribly anxious about keeping her daughter safe — not unfounded, considering an early scene in the book — but some of her unease is beginning to fade.
Enter Mayor Toro, the neighbor’s shy teenage son. He’s attracted to Maribel as soon as he sees her, though it’s hard to get close with Alma Rivera watching her daughter like a hawk. Even when he learns about Maribel’s disabilities, he’s intrigued by her: she often stares blankly at him, but the two obviously enjoy each other’s company and a friendship starts to blossom. Not quite trusting strangers around their disabled teenage daughter, the Riveras lay down rules; teenagers being teenagers, Mayor and Maribel start finding ways to sneak around those rules. It’s innocent teen infatuation, but some of their choices lead to disastrous consequences.
Born into the lowest caste of her hive’s hierarchy, Flora 717 is destined to be a sanitation worker for her entire life, mindlessly tending to the dirty work assigned to her by the hive’s higher-ups. Everything in the hive is done to serve the queen, who is immortal and loves all of her children. Accept. Obey. Serve. Those are the mandates Flora must religiously follow.
It’s a fraught time for the hive; a strange sickness keeps appearing, and any bee determined to be unhealthy or useless is immediately put to death. This potentially spells danger for Flora: she’s certainly ugly like the other sanitation workers, but she looks different from everyone else. And there’s something even more dangerous about her: unlike the other sanitation workers, who cannot speak and mostly spend their lives with their minds dulled, Flora has the ability to speak and think for herself. She can also has the ability to produce Flow, the royal jelly used to feed babies in the nursery. It’s unheard of for a lowly sanitation worker.
Because of her unique abilities, The Sages (the hive’s high priestesses) allow Flora to move up in the ranks and work in the nursery. Later, because of her strength and intellect, she’s allowed to become a forager and leave the hive to collect pollen. As many bees never even see the outside of the hive in their lifetime, Flora’s experiences are unheard of. Yet since she’s so different, a lot of eyes are also on her and she must tread lightly; she harbors a secret that would mean certain death if discovered.