You know that feeling you get when you hear about a book for a long time and by the time you finally sit down to read it you are so captivated that you wonder what took you so long? Unfortunately, that does not describe my experience with Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees. After all the hype, that's what I had hoped would happen. Instead, I felt like I just had to get through it so I could get onto something more interesting. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood for it, I don't know. But fortunately it was a pretty quick read so my agony didn't last long.
Okay, maybe agony is too strong a word. But it took four days to get through, which is an indicator either of great length and complexity (neither of which fit), or near apathy on the reader's part (bingo!). It is such a popular book that I'm sure I'll step on some toes saying I didn't like it, so I will try to be fair and specific. But mostly I just want to move on to something more interesting!
The Secret Life of Bees is a coming-of-age story featuring Lily Owens, a 14-year-old girl raised by an abusive father who has spent the past ten years haunted by the guilt of accidentally causing her mother's death. Either one of those things would be enough to cause issues, so you can bet she has a whole truckload to sort through. She struggles with debilitating feelings of worthlessness, abandonment, and a deep longing for a mother she can't remember. Her father hires a strong-willed black woman to take care of Lily, and when Rosaleen puts herself in mortal danger after offending the town's most violent racists, Lily sees no other option than for both of them to run away.
Did I mention that this takes place in South Carolina in 1964? That's pretty important in establishing the political and social climate of the time. The Civil Rights Act has just been signed and much of the South is in turmoil over integration and extending voting rights to blacks. Not exactly the best place for a white girl and a black woman to find refuge together. But refuge they find, at the home of an eccentric group of three black beekeeping sisters. There Lily faces the demons of racism that threaten those she loves, comes to terms with the inward demons that haunt her personally, and discovers what it means to be loved.
Sounds sweet and reflective, right? Sure, it is that. I guess I was just expecting a little more. The things that Lily deals with are serious and yet somehow her character feels false as she works through them. Maybe it's because for most of the story she is possessed with a keen sense of perception about life and humanity, but then when she learns the truth about her mother she behaves in a petty and immature way that's contradictory to what we've seen all along. So mostly I wanted to throw my hands up in the air and leave her to her own stupidity. Not exactly how you should be feeling towards the main character at the book's climax. Some of the imagery was compelling -- the bee theme, the Black Madonna, etc. But sometimes I felt like I was being positively drenched in female power and catharsis, and it sort of made me ill -- like having too many sweets on an empty stomach. And then there was the underlying sexual imagery that got old, especially when it was often blurred with Lily's longing for her mother.
What I think Sue Monk Kidd did best was creating a setting that you could almost breathe in, it was so real. The characters weren't as full of life as they could have been, and the story itself spent a lot of time going nowhere. But the setting was strong and alive and made me feel like I had really been raising bees in South Carolina in 1964. Is that enough to read one of her books again? Probably not. But at least I can check this one off my list!