I just finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees. My initial reaction was that it is a beautifully written coming-of-age novel. The descriptions of the American South in the 1960s are tender and lovely.
The story revolves around Lily Owens, a 14-year-old girl growing up in Sylvan, S.C., on a peach orchard with her father and a housekeeper. The story jump starts when Rosaleen, the black housekeeper, goes into town to register to vote. She encounters some white men bent on preventing her registration, and ends up beaten and in jail. Lily helps her escape, and the two of them run away; Rosaleen from jail and Lily from her abusive father. Lily’s mother is gone, dead from a gun accident when Lily was four, that may or may not have been caused by Lily.
Lily’s only clue to anything in her dead mother’s past is a photograph and a picture of a “black Madonna” with the words “Tiburon, S.C.” scrawled on the back. So Lily and Rosaleen head to Tiburon, where they meet with three sisters who run a honey farm.
The story’s basic themes involve Lily’s search for a mother and that love transcends race. The book is beautifully written, with often poetic and achingly lovely descriptions. But, as Lily matures and searches for clues to her mother’s past, the book becomes a bit too pat. The coincidences made me wince a bit and as I pondered the book, I found myself wondering about some of the details in the book. For example, if the setting is the Deep South in 1964, why didn’t anyone say anything when Lily and Zach drove into town? There’s a big fuss about a group of black teens throwing a bottle, but none of the white men involved in the fracas mention Lily. Wasn’t this less than ten years after the murder of Emmett Till, who was lynched for allegedly talking to a white woman?
I enjoyed the book, though it is not usually the sort I like to read. It is rare when I pick up a book that is aimed at the “chick lit” crowd. This book is not necessarily in that category, but the marketing of it seems to be towards the same group. The writing is exceptional, however, and I would recommend it just for the beauty of the prose.
A couple excerpts:
“When I looked up through the web of trees, the night fell over me, and for a moment I lost my boundaries, feeling like the sky was my own skin and the moon was my heart beating up there in the dark. Lightning came, not jagged but in soft, golden licks across the sky.”
“The first week at August’s was a consolation, a pure relief. The world will give you that once in a while, a brief time-out; the boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life.”