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[473] The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd

” In a weird way I must have loved my little collection of hurts and wounds. They provided me with some real nice sympathy, with the feeling I was exceptional. I was the girl abandoned by her mother. I was the girl who kneeled on grits. What a special case I was. ” (Ch.14, p.278)

Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel is set in the American South in 1964, the year of Civil Rights Act and intensifying racial unrest. Trimmed to the bone of this somewhat overwritten novel is a coming-of-age story in which a teenage girl is searching for a mother, but finds one in a place she never expected. Isolated on a South Carolina peach farm with a neglectful and harsh father, Lily Owens has spent much of her life pining for her mother, Deborah, who died amidst some mysterious circumstances when Lily was four. To makes matter worse, her father has told her that she accidentally killed her mother.

Knowing can be a curse on a person’s life. I’d traded in a pack of lies for a pack of truth, and I didn’t know which one was heavier. Which one took the most strength to carry around? It was a ridiculous question, though, because once you know the truth, you can’t ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies. (Ch.12, p.255)

Lily is raised by Rosaleen, her proud and outspoken African American nanny/help. Attempted to exercise the hard-won right to vote, she is attacked by the three worst racists in town—and is thrown into jail for disturbing the peace. Seizing the opportunity, Lily decides to save Rosaleen and runs away from home and her abusive father. Together they set out for Tiburon, South Carolina, a town they know nothing about except that in a box once belonging to Lily’s mother there’s a cryptic picture of a black Virgin Mary with the words “Tiburon” written on the back.

I wanted to produce the black Mary picture and say, This belonged to my mother, this exact same, identical picture you put on your honey jars. And it has Tiburon, South Carolina, written on the back, so I know she must’ve been here. I wanted to hold up her photograph and say, Have you ever seen her? Take your time now. Think carefully. (Ch.7, p.122)

I loved the idea of bees having a secret life, just like the one I was living. (Ch.8, p.148)

No doubt Lily finds the truth about her mother at the bee farm, where the black beekeeping sisters take her and Rosaleen in. I appreciate the theme Kidd tries thoughtful to convey: the grand purpose in human life is not just to love but to persist in love. She explores such deep issues as loss, betrayal, and wounds—in the context of motherhood and family. The problem of the novel, however, is that Kidd strains to establish the connection between bees and human beings. Her characters are neither natural nor real. Fourteen-year-old Lily seems to be so lost in her own dream (and she admits to that) and yet repeatedly hews out insights like “it is the peculiar nature of the world to go on spinning no matter what sort of heartbreak is happening,” with a maturity of an adult. The whole black Virgin Mary digression about religion doesn’t drive the story; and that Lily, a run-away white girl, is being raised by a circle of colored women is just outrageously clichéd. This book is a “feel-good” read but not memorable at all. Sometimes the reading feels like breathing through a clump of warm honey.

302 pp. Penguin Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

2 Responses

  1. You read my mind about this book. I felt the exact same way, though I highly doubt I would have conveyed it as eloquently.

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