Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics), 2003 Reprint

Pages: 336

Book Description: In Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, 14-year-old Lily Owen, neglected by her father and isolated on their Georgia peach farm, spends hours imagining a blissful infancy when she was loved and nurtured by her mother, Deborah, whom she barely remembers. These consoling fantasies are her heart’s answer to the family story that as a child, in unclear circumstances, Lily accidentally shot and killed her mother. All Lily has left of Deborah is a strange image of a Black Madonna, with the words “Tiburon, South Carolina” scrawled on the back. The search for a mother, and the need to mother oneself, are crucial elements in this well-written coming-of-age story set in the early 1960s against a background of racial violence and unrest. When Lily’s beloved nanny, Rosaleen, manages to insult a group of angry white men on her way to register to vote and has to skip town, Lily takes the opportunity to go with her, fleeing to the only place she can think of–Tiburon, South Carolina–determined to find out more about her dead mother.

First Sentence: At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.

Reason book was selected: I heard a few good things about the book and was particulary interested in how the author presented an African-American cast of characters.

Cover Art: I like the simplistic cover featuring just the jar of honey. I think this cover makes the reader curious and it doesn’t give away too much about the book. The other cover featuring the back of a girl’s head doesn’t work for me. One reason being, the girl in the book is 14 years old and the two pigtails featured in the cover art make her seem much younger.

The Good: The most interesing thing about this book was the way the author presented a variety of information about bees. In a way, the reader received a lesson in science and a fiction story at the same time. Another good thing was the fact that the author didn’t present her African-American characters in a stereotypical manner. Each character was well-rounded and developed, never straying too far from what the reader may expect.

I really liked May’s character. Although the story involving her twin sister April’s denial of the right to eat ice cream and read a cartoon book with the white children, thus causing depression and eventually suicide…was a little dry. At first I thought May was mentally retarded, but in reality she was simply emotionally disturbed (today’s special ed terminology). May’s emotional disturbances were usually brought on by various upsetting events that occured in the lives of those close to her, people in the community, and the world in general. Her emotional breakdowns and ways of dealing with her pains definitely kept me interested.

The Bad: I had a few issues with this book. For instance, the setting is 1964, but I kept imagining it was the 1940s. The only things that placed the novel in the 1960s time period was the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the characters watching television. One might argue that placing the book in the time period I imagined would take away from Rosaleen’s pursuit for her right to vote. In my opinion, this pursuit was unnecessary to the book. The author presented Southern racism that could have taken place during any time period pre-196?. I also had issues with the interracial love shared between the main character, Lily, and her Black friend Zach. This was something else that just didn’t seem necessary for the development or final outcome of the story. Could they not have developed a strong loving frienship without the presence of lustful thoughts and feelings?

Of course I had issues with the ending of the book. Here comes the spoiler if you haven’t read it. The last 30 pages dragged on. My goodness. The driving force of my read was whether Lily would learn what she needed to know about her mother. While the presentation of this information was interesting, I was disappointed that after receiving this knowledge, that her and T. Ray (her father) couldn’t work it out. Yes, T. Ray was a mean spirited father, but in a way the reader understands his pain. I mean, I really wanted Lily and T. Ray to be able to take the information about Deborah (the mother) and build a better relationship. Instead, Kidd does some Lifetime movie type stuff, making T. Ray act crazy, calm down, the black folks step in, T. Ray gets a heart (for a change) and slowly drives off. I just didn’t like how the story wrapped up. Usually, when I finish a novel, I think about the characters for days, wondering what happened to them after that last page. With SLoB I don’t necessarily feel that way because I can’t adjust to the fact that Lily was allowed to stay with her “black mothers.” This has nothing to do with a racial thing, it has to do with a familial thing. I really wanted T. Ray to get a heart and for them to work things out.

The Ugly: I don’t know why, but I really wasn’t feeling the sculpture that represented the spirit of the Virgin Mary. The praise of it bothered me. The rubbing down in honey and celebrations around it bothered me. The militant fist the form raised–wasn’t feeling it. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t feeling any of it. Not even the story that came along with it, making it some mythical object. Nah Kidd. Nah.

At one point, the white police officer threatens Lily. He tells her that if he comes back to the house and sees that she’s still living there with so many black women that he’s going to have issues with it (and will do something about it). Well, he never returns! Every page I turned after that point, I was waiting for him to burst through the front door and do a little chin checking. Never happened.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Interview with the author: