My introduction to The Secret Life of Bees came by way of a preview for the movie adaptation starring Queen Latifah and Dakota Fanning earlier this past fall. At the time I thought it looked interesting, but only recently did I learn that it was based off a book published in 2002. So when a friend offered to lend me a copy she had read, I decided to add it to my immediate reading list.
The Secret Life of Bees is the tragic, earthy, and layered coming-of-age story of Lily Melissa Owens, a 14-year old girl who lives with an abusive father and whose only memory of her mother consists of the few minutes before Lily, as a toddler, accidentally kills her. The entire story is set upon the historical backdrop of the Summer of 1964 in South Carolina -- the summer that President Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act outlawing racial segregation. The narrative picks up when Rosaleen, the Owens' housekeeper, heads to town to register to vote and ends up verbally abused, arrested, and beaten. Fearing that the men will return and kill Rosaleen, Lily helps her to escape and together they run away to Tiburon, SC -- the name of which Lily saw written on the back of one of her mother's belongings. Lily believes Tiburon not only holds some connection to her mother's past, but will help her find what she's missing in her life. But Tiburon has more in store for Lily and Rosaleen than they initially imagine. It is there that Lily begins the difficult internal journey of facing her past and working her way toward healing, but it is also where they meet the Boatwright sisters, are introduced to the world of bees, and develop friendships.
As I said, this story is tragic and earthy. Slang and cussing is found scattered throughout the story and various descriptions add to make for a rather earthy feeling. Several events occur in the book which are very tragic in nature including several deaths (two by suicide), physical and verbal abuse, and several ugly scenes of racial hatred and abuse. On the positive side, Ms. Kidd writes very well and is able to paint very vivid pictures so that even without seeing the movie I was able to picture the pink house, the bee hives, the hot summer days... It would appear that Ms. Kidd attempts to balance the difficult nature of her story by weaving details about bees and the day-to-day life of a beekeeper and through the love and kindness of the Boatwright sisters and their friends.
But in the end, as I closed the book, I felt like I needed a mental bath to wash off the ugliness in the story. While the book does end on a somewhat happy note, I found myself struggling with various elements of the book.
The first being the ugliness of racism. Racism is something I just can't grasp. How any person could look at another person and judge them less because of the color of their skin... it's just beyond my comprehension. It's just as stupid and wrong as it would be to judge someone by the color of their hair or eyes, or whether they had curly or straight hair, had freckles or perfect teeth. Racism is disgusting and evil and it's grieving to read.
Another element was the the "religion" projected in the story which I can only describe as a mix of Catholicism, New Age, and idol worship. I have my own personal objections, which I realize there are people who won't agree with me, let me just say overall I was uncomfortable with the "religion" and found it to be a a conflict with my own personal views, but not a barrier to reading the story -- I often found myself speed-reading or skimming some of the parts that dealt with it.
These objections aside, Ms. Kidd chose to tackle several powerful and difficult subjects in this book making a weighty story which is not for everyone. But if the reader is able to emotionally handle these issues, then this story could be an interesting read... though it seems odd to claim it entertaining, because it wasn't a "fun" read by any sense of the word.
With her writing style, at 302 pages, The Secret Life of Bees would be a fast read if it weren't for the subject matter. I found myself setting the book aside several times in order to read something a little lighter in nature. If you choose to read this book I would definitely recommend borrowing vs. buying this book, at least until you know more about the story and whether it's one you wish to add to your personal library. As for the movie, having not seen it I can't comment on it, but welcome any thoughts readers may have who have seen the movie or even read the book.
On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being horrible and 5 being excellent I'd rate this book a 2.5 -- "OK" -- I didn't hate the book, but I certainly didn't love it. There was just too many difficult issues in the story for me to enjoy it. In closing, The Secret Life of Bees is no To Kill A Mockingbird, but it did remind me of the latter and if you are a fan of To Kill A Mockingbird, you might find this book a worthy read, but don't expect it to compare.