I love a book steeped in summery goodness and brimming with sisterly drama. Add a touch of humor and an unforgettable voice, and I’m sold.
THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd is one of those rare books. My copy has so many favorite pages thumbed down that it has blossomed to twice its original size. Set during a steamy summer in South Carolina at the height of the civil rights movement, the novel grabs you from the beginning and won’t let go—largely because of its narrator, fourteen-year-old Lily Owens, motherless and wise beyond her years. In Kidd’s gifted hands, Lily manages to be both sassy and sweet, part civil rights advocate and part poet. Where else can you find a girl who imagines Mother Nature looking a lot “like Eleanor Roosevelt” and who sees dragonflies “stitching up the air”?
I fell in love with her instantly.
There is a heat that pervades the pages, making it feel as if the South Carolinian sun has snuck in through your back door. You might be tempted to fan yourself as you read, or pour yourself a glass of sweet tea or lemonade. “Heat collected in the creases of my elbows, in the soft places behind my knees,” says Lily. The story’s warmth, both literally and figuratively, practically shimmers off the page. The rhythms of the South, the melodic buzzing of bees, the sweet taste of honey from the honey farm Lily visits—all these things come together to form a character unto itself, as rich as any of the feisty women who inhabit the novel.
And it is these feisty, loving women, the Boatwright sisters—May, June, and August—who truly make the book shine. With nary a question, the three black women take in Lily—who has run away from her abusive father—and her nanny, Rosaleen (whom Lily, incidentally and quite wonderfully, has broken out of jail). August is probably my favorite of the trio; she keeps everything humming along at the farm with her own special brand of industry and understanding. “The whole problem with people,” she tells Lily, “is they know what matters, but they don’t choose it. The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.”
You can almost feel the sisters’ collective love as it wraps itself around young Lily, providing the elixir her broken heart so desperately needs. As if honey runs through their very veins, the Boatwright ladies teach Lily the intricacies of bee farming, all the while coaching her on the secrets of soul-soothing. In fact, the restorative power of honey is so varied and abundant in this novel you may well want to buy a whole case of it when you’re done reading.
Ultimately, it is the sweetness—of the honey, of the sisters, of the sheer, breathtaking humanity in these pages—that will make you fall in love, whether reading the book for the very first time or upon revisiting it. I daresay it might even offer solace during a moment in our nation when we need some reminding of the human ties that bind us. Indeed, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES seems to shout, “Sisterly (and brotherly) love will get us through life’s struggles.”
Sisterly love and honey, that is.
Lily Owens’s life is shaped around the blurry memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. Tired of life with her punitive father and unanswered questions, Lily journeys down South to find the town that holds the secret to her mother’s troubled past. She ends up finding so much more in a trio of three black beekeepers, but she also learns the devastating truth about her past. I needed a wailing wall (the stone wall one of the beekeepers uses to grieve) of my own while reading this book.