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.
This was a beautiful book. It was a bit slow to get into at first, because it wasn’t immediately apparent what we were rooting for, but it is worth the effort to push through. There were so many themes about family (especially in finding it in the most unexpected places), redemption, and hope.
First off, I loved how Kidd worked the whole book around bees. They played a large role in the plot, they worked as an allegory for some of the events, and the informational quotes at the beginning of the chapter were delightful. Plus, I have a whole new knowledge of bees, which is also cool.
Kidd captured southern culture beautifully, and her writing style is stunning. It reminded me a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird in this sense, especially with the commentary on racism from the perspective of a child. Kidd did such a good job representing the culture at the time (1960s), that it did make me incredibly uncomfortable at times, with all of the racial slurs and stereotypes. This is an incredibly sad book, due to the plot line and the fact that it’s set in the 1960s, but it does have a happy ending, and all of the sadness serves a distinct purpose in the long run.
I really only have two complaints. The first is that since Lily is a fourteen year old girl, and we are in her first person narrative, we get all of her awkward, teenage thoughts and feelings. While it was well done and very real, it did feel a bit like going back to puberty and there was a bit of second-hand embarrassment. The second is that I really wish there had been an epilogue. The story ends on such a tentative note, and I needed like a “five years later” follow up to make sure everything actually worked out ok.
Content warnings: There is a smattering of language throughout, several racial slurs.