Much too infrequently in the life of a voracious reader does a book come along that is as satisfying emotionally, intellectually and spiritually as The Secret Life of Bees. Sue Monk Kidd has made a name for herself in non-fiction, but her first venture into fiction is astonishingly complete. It’s a rare pleasure to be reading a book, then backtrack countless times merely to absorb the beauty of its prose. The Secret Life of Bees is also a book that I hated to finish. I desperately wanted to know the resolution, but I absolutely did not want this book to end.
The Secret Life of Bees is set in South Carolina in 1964, just as LBJ signed into law the Civil Rights Act. Lily Owen is a motherless, friendless, fourteen-year-old who has grown up believing she accidentally killed her mother when she was four. The only thing she has to rely on is her own memory of holding the gun, but her father's account of the tragedy. Lily has just about had enough of her father’s unfeeling behavior. Her father, a hard, bitter man, in a fit of anger tells Lily that her mother had run away from them and had abandoned both of them. Lily refuses to accept it, and this just fuels her anger toward this cold, unfeeling man who doesn’t even deserve the moniker of “Father.” In fact, for most of the book, Lily calls him T. Ray.
Lily’s odyssey begins on her fourteenth birthday. Waiting in vain for a gift from T. Ray, Lily asks Rosaleen, her nanny, if she may go with her to town while Rosaleen registers to vote. When Rosaleen spits tobacco juice on three of the worst racists in town, they both end up in jail. T. Ray picks up Lily and leaves Rosaleen, who is beaten so badly in jail that she’s taken to the hospital.
Fearing for Rosaleen’s life, Lily breaks her out of the hospital. They hitchhike to the only place Lily can think of, a town called Tiburon, South Carolina--a name she found on the back of a picture of a black Madonna amid the few possessions left by her mother. In the first place that Lily enters, a store in Tiburon, she sees a shelf full of honey jars with the same picture on their labels. She finds out the makers of the honey live just down the road, the Boatwright sisters.
Lily and Rosaleen are given sanctuary by a trio of black women: August, June and May, a family of beekeepers. Lily thinks of them as the calendar sisters. While Lily is staying with the sisters, she learns lessons that will guide her for the rest of her life. Lily starts a journey in search of answers about her mother; a journey as much about her understanding of the world as about the enigma surrounding her mother.
What makes The Secret Life of Bees so mesmerizing is Lily. Told in first person, this story touches all of us who have ever dealt with maternal loss and betrayal, culpability and have needed absolution. Lily is belatedly seeking love and acceptance, emotions that she’s never gotten from T. Ray. Lily is so likeable and so charming, so human. Kidd uses a technique to make Lily even more human and real: we’re treated to lots of asides from Lily. Done sotto voce, Lily utters comments only to herself, but it’s the kind of comments that hours later, we will think, “I wish I’d said that.”
Kidd gives us wonderfully complete secondary characters. We come to care about all of the Boatwright sisters: the indomitable August, the cynic June and the kind and damaged May. There’s even a budding romance between Lily and Zach a young man who helps with the bees. They both acknowledge that the color barrier will keep them apart until…
Kidd skillfully details how insidious racism is. A buffoon deputy-dawg type advises Lily that she doesn’t belong with the black people. They’re not her kind.
Kidd can be compared to some great writers. Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite writers. Her skilled use of language just awes me (though occasionally I get tired of what I call her “ecological rant”). Monk is just as brilliant in her use of language. Metaphors and similes are so perfectly evocative. To add more accolades to Kidd’s writing, Lily can be compared to Harper Lee’s Scout Finch, who are both survivors and steel magnolias.
How do you deal with grief and the feeling of total abandonment? Lily is a young heroine to have to deal with such themes. Not only does she do it successfully, she does it with grace and joy. That joy transcends the pain and the angst-filled journey we’ve just been on. Lily who has had to be strong beyond her years, an adolescent, who learns that self-acceptance will give us solace and forgiveness when we need it. As Lily tells readers at the end: "Look at me. I dived into one absurd thing after the other, and here I am . . . I wake up to wonder every day".
Each chapter begins with quotations from bee books. The quotes were thematically relevant and charming on their own as well. Is this book about bees? You’ll have to answer that after you’ve read it.
The Secret Life of Bees is not a book that you will likely forget. Its message resonates deeply for all of us. Fiction doesn’t get much better than this. And like honey, Secret Life contains a lovely, sweet healing quality.
There’s only one thing that would make this book better: a sequel.