September 24, 2018
Issue 11 2018
Booked in

Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

The hardest kind of book to talk about, I think, is one that you liked but didn’t necessarily love. A book that can’t really be faulted for anything in particular, but nor can you come up with a list of things that make it amazing. That’s what Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees is to me. A well-written, well-paced, well-constructed novel. Yep. That’s about it. Review over.

Obviously, that was a joke, just not a very funny one. I’m doing my best, okay? The Secret Life of Bees, set in 1964 South Carolina, tells the story of 14-year-old Lily Owens. Since her mother was killed ten years prior, Lily has lived with her abusive father, T. Ray, and their black maid, Rosaleen, who is a surrogate mother to Lily. After an incident involving a handful of racist assholes, Lily and Rosaleen escape to Tiburon, South Carolina, where they find refuge in a pink house inhabited by three black beekeeping sisters, August, June, and May.

The first thing you’ll notice when you turn to chapter one of The Secret Life of Bees is a little bee fact above the chapter heading, a trend which persists throughout the book. I’m a little ambivalent about chapter-heading quotes, usually, but bees are seriously fascinating, and the facts are thematically appropriate, so I thought they were a nice touch. As well as evidence that Kidd has done her research.

The second thing you’ll notice, when you start reading chapter one, is that that Kidd’s writing is beautiful. Imagistic and flowing, controlled and subtle, I think my favourite thing about this novel is how incredibly readable it is. There were no instances where I felt the wording or syntax could have been better, or that it would have benefited from tighter editing—and I’m, like, super picky about these things. It’s a grammar Nazi’s dream book.

The Secret Life of Bees is an emotional, personal tale in which plot takes a back seat to story. The characters are fleshed out and three-dimensional, and Lily’s teenaged perspective is convincing and compelling. Kidd’s is a highly sophisticated story of becoming and unbecoming; growing up and moving on; learning and bettering. Of living, even when you’re not certain what to live for. Maybe it’s a little cheesy at times, but it’s heartfelt. Religion—or at least spirituality—play a big role, and maybe that’s why The Secret Life of Bees didn’t resonate with me as deeply as it could have. Even so, it’s an enjoyable, easy-to-read book, and I can see why people love it so much.