Jun 26, 2007

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

"Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here."
Where to start? Over the last few months I’ve come to realize that The Secret Life of Bees is an extremely popular and widely read book. But this is not the case in my little corner of the world. Until a few months ago, when I began it think of what my picks for the Southern Reading Challenge would be, I was perhaps vaguely familiar with the book’s title, but nothing more. This is one of the reasons why I love reading challenges. They expose me to books that I would perhaps not read otherwise – and I would definitely be missing out.

For the few who don’t know, The Secret Life of Bees is the story of Lily, a fourteen-year-old motherless girl living in South Carolina in 1960’s, the time of the Civil Rights movement. Lily’s mother died when she was a small child, and she lives with her uncaring father, and her only friend is Rosaleen, a black servant who helped bring her up after her mother’s death. After the Civil Rights law is passed, Rosaleen goes to town to register her name to vote, but she gets into trouble. The two of them have to run away, and end up at a Bee Farm in Tiburon, South Carolina, living with a coloured family, and Lily begins to work as an assistant beekeeper. From then on, the book is a journey of self-discovery. Lily wants to learn about her mother, and in the process she also learns about herself. The Civil Rights movement and the racial tensions of that period are always in the background, and they add depth to the story.

There are many reasons why I loved this book. The writing itself, for starters, is both simple and beautiful, and, above all, it feels very genuine. There’s earnestness pulsing behind every word. The descriptions are very vivid, and they often create concrete images that convey the feeling that is being described perfectly. One example:
I don’t remember what they said, only the fury of their words, how the air turned raw and full of welts. Later it would remind me of birds trapped inside a closed room, flinging themselves against the windows and the walls, against each other.
And another:
I think now that it was sorrow for the sound of his fork scrapping the plate, the way it swelled in the distance between us, how I was not even in the room.
Like I said, I loved how genuine this book felt – the writing itself feels earnest, but there’s more than that. This book shows things as they are. At some point in the story, August Boatwright says, There is nothing perfect. There is only life. This is true in general, and it’s very true of this story in specific. The way problems like racism are portrayed, for example, shows them in their full complexity. Lily is a white girl living with a coloured family, and although she was outraged when Rosaleen was mistreated by white men, she discovers that she too has some prejudice buried inside her. It is only by admitting this to herself that she begins to overcome it.

All through the book, we are shown that in life, things are often not how we wish, nor how we dreamed they’d be. We learn to accept them as they are, though, and to live with them – to treasure them for their flaws, even. They may be broken and human-sized, but they are ours – the events of our lives, which shaped us into who we are. This acceptance, and the treasuring that comes after acceptance, was for me the main core of the story.

Another thing I really liked is how faith is portrayed in this book. The Boatwright sisters are part of the Daughters of Mary, and their faith and their rites are very personal and very passionate.

And of course, there are the bees. Bees are fascinating animals, and, especially after reading Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, I smile every time I find them in a story. In this book, there are quotations from apiculture books before each chapter, and each and every one of them is related to what the characters are going through.

There are quite a few sad events in the book, and not everything Lily unveils in her journey of self-discovery is pleasant, but, despite that, I found this an ultimately uplifting and hopeful story. To the few who haven’t read it, I say: do – it will be worth your time.

Other Blog Reviews:
Nothing of Importance
Out of the Blue
Back to Books
Melody's Reading Corner


  1. Great review as always! I hadn't heard of it before I started browsing random blogs online and everyone seems to love it. I will try and read it soon for sure.

  2. Is it sad that the whole time I was reading your review I was trying to decide if I liked the cover or not... I read this book, well, sometime in the last few years. I liked it.

    Okay, there is something that bothers me about the cover, I think it is because it looks more like the cover of a kids book than an adult book, or, something...

  3. Thanks Rhinoa! I hope you like it!

    Kailana, yeah... it does. It definitely doesn't represent the content of the book accurately. I like thi s one better.

  4. I've never actually read a review of this book...glad you reviewed it! I've always just assumed I'd hate it and that it was just some book for housewives in their mid forties who drank champagne and ate caviar and wore big hats all day :p

    I'm glad to hear it's not just for that crowd! I'll have to put it on the wishlist. Really sounds like a great story. Almost done the Southern Reading Challenge, huh?

  5. Yes, that's the cover I have, I like it much better!

  6. I loved this book, it had me in tears.

  7. I'm so glad you enjoyed this book...your review was beautiful! I just read this book for the Southern Reading Challenge, as well. Probably never would have read it otherwise, and that would have been terribly sad. This book would probably make my top 10 favorites now.

  8. Chris, lol! I had no opinion in this book in particular because I hadn't hard that much about it, but I've been guilty of that as well. Sometimes I am a bit suspicious of very popular books, especially if they have blurbs from "Women's World Magazine" :P

    I suppose that we're being just like the people who cast fantasy aside because it's for "nerds", but hey, we are only human, we are allowed our little preconceptions :P

    But yeah, this one is definitely not just for housewives wearing big hats :P It's emotional without being overly sentimental, and it's the kind of story that will probably appeal to everyone. It's a coming-of-age tale, I guess, and I'm a sucker for those. They are so universal - growing up is something we all went through, after all.

    Margo, it's such an emotional story, isn't it?

    Debi, I'm very glad you liked my review. I really liked yours as well. I'm so thankful that the challenge made me discover this book!

  9. I really enjoy coming of age stories as well. If that's a central theme of a book, then I'm pretty much guaranteed to like it. It's also a central theme in almost all of my writing. Even if I don't put it in there purposefully, it finds it's way in there. Wonder what Freud would say about that ;)

    I'm definitely guilty of casting books into certain genres according to their assumed readers. Isn't that horrible?! I need to stop doing that. I actually know quite a few women in their 40's who wear big hats and they're really nice so I guess I should be nice....but what's the fun in that *devilish grin*

    OK, new resolution is to read more books outside of just the fantasy/sci-fi genre which I will be doing soon anyway for the classics challenge!

  10. Maybe those stories appeal to us in special because, being in our 20's, adolescence is still a bit fresh in our minds? I have never actually stopped to think of this, but now that you mention it, a lot of what I write is also about a young protagonist discovering who they are and what they love and how they generally feel about life. I think it's good that this comes out naturally, though. If we thought, "okay, I'm going to write a coming-of-age story now!" it would most likely turn out forced. But, because those themes are relevant for us, it just happens naturally.

    I have nothing against ladies in big hats either (it's so funny you should mention that, because there ARE ladies in big hats in the book, and they turn out to be really nice), but I think that some of those preconceptions can be useful. We need some sort of filter we can use to pick what we want to read. If our TBR lists are huge as it is, imagine if we didn't have these filters - we'd be drowning in books!

    But yes, it's nice to venture outside our reading niches every now and then. Challenges are great for that! I need to read more classics myself, so I will be following your reviews with extra interest!

  11. I like coming of age stories, too, and I enjoyed this book. It isn't one of my favorites or anything, but it was a nice read, and fairly unique.

  12. I liked this book--I really did, but I didn't see what all the hype was about. Its been several years, and I remember it being a relatively quick read--so many I need to give it another shot.

  13. Dewey, I wouldn't call it an all-time favourite either, but it was definitely a lovely read.

    Trish: I think that it helped that I wasn't even aware that there was hype, so I approached it with no expectations, pretty much. But yes, I think this one would be pleasant to revisit.

  14. I am so glad you enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees, Nymeth. It truly is a moving story. Wonderful review.

  15. I was also a bit ambivalent about this due to the hype, but I read it and enjoyed it.

    There's a lot of stories about the South, but few with so many facets. My version also has this cover which I think captures the magical, eclectic feel of the book.

  16. Literary Feline: thank you!

    Kim: I love that cover! I had actually seen it on the translated version here, but I wanted to read the original, so I figured I could endure a bad cover :P

  17. We were marketed the "honey in the window sill" cover, which I remember focusing on after each chapter.

    A little interesting fact, the book is used in southern high school lit classes as an alternative or companion with To Kill a Mockingbird, depending on the school! That just blows me away, for I see similarities, but as an alternative-please!

    I think an aspect of the book that I find in other books is the wall feature. The writing of notes and stuffing them in a rock wall. I thought this might make a good reading program featuring fences.

    Oh, and one thing about the believability (sp) of the story, our reading group didn't buy it. They are a group of retirees in their 60s and older who experienced the civil rights firsthand and in the South. Races didn't mix in their books. If it had been set in the 1970s, the group would have been okay.

  18. Great Review! I have this on my list for the Southern Reading challenge too. I hope to get to it next month.

    I love coming of age stories. I'm just finishing up The Tender Bar by JR Moehringer, which is non-fiction, but it's such a great tale about his growing up.

  19. i hadn't even considered reading this book but your review has intrigued me. i especially like the fact that the book describes things just as they are.

    this seems like an interesting exploration of the south - thanks for the review.

    and thanks for adding my blog to your links! :) i've added you too!

  20. Maggie: Yeah, it should never replace "To Kill a Mockingbird." I did like this one a lot, but Mockingbird is just something else. That's interesting about the believability of the story. As a complete outsider, those issues didn't even cross my mind, but I wonder if she chose the 60's intentionally exactly because it would be unthinkable then.

    Stephanie, I look forward to your thoughts on it!

    Jean Pierre: I wouldn't have considered it either even if wasn't for the challenge, but I'm glad I did. And yeah, I think it shows things as they are not necessarily in terms of events, like Maggie said, but in terms of emotions. Lily, the protagonist, is not alwas noble or "good", she's just... a confused young girl trying to figure things out, and this process generates all kinds of feelings.

    And you're welcome!

  21. Great review Nymeth. I read this one a while back and I was really hesitant to start reading it. I don't know why really but so glad I did. I agree there seemed to be such genuine feelings in this book and things weren't added just because.


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