At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. the way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.
It’s too bad about The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. I wanted to like it; it came highly lauded by both professional reviewers and members of my family (always an opinionated bunch). But mostly the novel failed to live up to the expectations it set for itself.
The book follows fourteen-year-old Lily Owens, who springs her black nanny, Rosaleen, from jail, after Rosaleen is arrested for spitting on the shoes of three of the worst racists in their small South Carolina town. Lily and Rosaleen are taken in by three black beekeeping sisters who live in a house “painted like Pepto-Bismol” and who are named after calendar months. August, the oldest, makes honey, reads the classics, and has Deep Thoughts for Lily every day. June is a schoolteacher who plays the cello for dying people. May cooks and has manic-depressive episodes that end with her running outside to pass her misery onto the “wailing wall” the sisters have created. The sisters lead The Daughters of Mary, a religious circle for the local black women. They worship a Black Madonna figurehead with a red heart painted on her chest.
Kidd says that the first chapter of this book was based heavily on a short story she wrote in 1993. It shows. The first chapter, which begins with an amazing scene of bees swarming inside a guest bedroom in Sylvan, South Carolina, is complete in itself. The chapter promised hints of magical realism a la Gabriel Garcia Marquez set against the backdrop of a beautiful South Carolina countryside beginning to be ripped apart by the Civil Rights movement. It promised a coming-of-age story exploring of what it meant to be a woman in a man’s world, or what it meant to be black in a white world.
Unfortunately, the rest of the novel was based largely around women hugging each other and crying.
I was pressed so close to her I felt her heart like a small throbbing pressure against my chest. Her hands rubbed my back. She didn’t say, Come on now, stop your crying, everything’s going to be okay, which is the automatic thing people say when they want you to shut up. She said, “It hurts, I know it does. Let it out. Just let it out.”
So I did. With my mouth pressed against her dress, it seemed like I drew up my whole lifeload of pain and hurled it into her breast, heaved it with the force of my mouth, and she didn’t flinch.
She was wet with my crying. Up around her collar the cotton of her dress was plastered to her skin. I could see the darkness shining through the wet places. She was like a sponge, absorbing what I couldn’t hold anymore.
This would be less terrible if this were all there were, but the whole book feels like this. The race tensions are relegated to making Lily faint after June doesn’t want Lily to touch the Black Madonna’s heart, and the arrest of Lily’s love interest, a black boy named Zach, when he is standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
True, the book was not specifically about the beginnings of the civil rights era, yet I wanted more. As Chekhov said, “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.” Kidd’s first chapter had an all-out brawl, with Rosaleen fighting off three full-grown men at once. Lily and Rosaleen were kicked out of a Baptist church in the first chapter. The gun never fires.
Likewise, in the first chapter Kidd lays out the relationship, or lack of one, between Lily and her abusive father, T. Ray. His only part in the book after the first chapter is over the phone, when Lily makes a collect call home, and at the end, when he comes to the pink house to retrieve Lily and instead mistakes her for his deceased wife. An interesting scene, and T. Ray is certainly an interesting character, but I felt myself wishing Kidd had done more with him. Zach, too, was neglected in favor of Lily’s female coven, the members of which I found fairly boring. Lily herself, with her distinctive teenaged voice, was an interesting narrator, but a thoroughly uninteresting character.
It’s unfortunate that the book didn’t deliver on its promises. Kidd is not a bad writer, and in the future I may check out some of her other books, but if you choose to read The Secret Life of Bees, you may want to stop after Chapter One.