The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Digital Audiobook narrated by Jenna Lamia
Published by Penguin Books on January 28, 2003
Genres: Adult, Adult Fiction, Fiction, Historical, Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Length: 336 pages or 9 hours, 54 minutes
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Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily's fierce-hearted black "stand-in mother," Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina--a town that holds the secret to her mother's past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna. This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.
The Secret Life of Bees is one of those modern classics that is so good in so many ways from cover to cover, I’m not sure I can really do it justice in a basic review.
It tells the story of Lily Owens, a little girl who killed her mother when she was a toddler and is living with the weight of that accident heavy on her heart. Her father, T-Ray, blames her for the loss of his beloved wife and finds it impossible to love her. So when the only person who has ever shown Lily a little bit of love – their black housekeeper, Rosaleen – is arrested for spitting snuff on some racist white men’s boots, Lily does the only thing that seems right – she breaks Rosaleen out and sets off toward South Carolina.
Lily’s sole purpose in her journey is to find out more about her mother and never, ever go home again. There’s a wistfulness to this goal as Lily struggles with the peace of ignorance and the need to be loved by a mother she doesn’t remember. A picture of the Black Madonna leads her to a Caribbean pink house and the calendar sisters – May, June, and August.
I love the Boatwright sisters. The three of them are so vibrant and their characters so wonderful. August is the wise mentor, June the judge, and May the perfect, sad sprite. I relish every moment spent with them and it’s easy to see why Lily wants to stay in the white house. I don’t particularly like Lily’s character – I find her stiff and selfish – and while I think that Rosaleen is well written, she doesn’t click for me. But May, June, and August? I love all three of them. But I especially love August.
Firstly, the wise mentor figure is one that seems to be fading out of fiction, and that’s too bad because this character trope is fantastic. In August’s case, she watches over Lily with quiet patience and teaches her in stories and with bees. She never once loses her temper with the girl – who causes damage to their lives more than once along the story – and when Lily is ready, August is waiting for her. She’s a full, lovely person who you’d want to know in real life, and that makes an amazing character.
Of course, with a title like The Secret Life of Bees, there’s some aspect of bees in this book. In part, it’s bees and honeymaking since that is August’s profession, which she begins to teach Lily. But there are metaphors galore here if you look for them. There are male characters here – T-Ray, Zach, Neil, and so forth – but like a beehive, this story is lead by a female. And there are metaphors in death as well, for when the queen dies. There’s conversation about beekeeping, and also storytelling about bees in mythology. I really like the integration of this topic alongside the story – I felt it gave it additional depth and made it more unique. But I also have no problem with bees, and I know a lot of people are terrified of them. I’m not sure if a fear (other than outright phobia) would lessen the enjoyment of the book, since they are fictional bees, but that’s something to know. Hopefully the cover gives it away.
The storytelling is a bit slow, but the book itself never feels like it’s ambling on. It takes a while to get answers to Lily’s questions, but I feel as though the reader has guessed most the answers. In the case of The Secret Life of Bees it’s less about a linear, driven plot and more about the sticky golden sweetness of a summer in the pink house, giving the story a bit of a Dandelion Wine feel at times. It’s written very well and manages to be atmospheric without being flowery, which I think is a difficult balance to strike and I’m always impressed when an author does it well.
I’ve read this book before, although it’s been a few years, and I’m happy to report that The Secret Life of Bees is a very re-readable book, even if you had to read it in school and, like me, you have to stop yourself from taking note every time jars, windows, and doors are mentioned (that was my 11th grade essay topic for the novel). The racism in the book, sadly, still feels very relevant today. It’s the type of book that will make you mad, make you sad, but also make your smile. It remains one of my favorites.
Would you paint your house a bright color? I’ve always liked lilac because purple’s my favorite color and I feel like too many houses are the same drab shades of cream and brown. Let me know what you think in the comments!