Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Secret Life of Bees (thoughts)

Usually, I try not to double-post on the same day. However, I wrote the review and I just can't stop myself from sharing it. :) If you're interested in my reading breakdown for the past 3 months, or in seeing my latest bookmooches, then definitely look at my entry below as well!

I didn't expect to love Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees. I'm always wary of best-sellers, so even though I put it on my Southern Reading Challenge list, I wasn't sure I'd get to it. In Barnes and Noble, however, the only copies of The Color Purple they had carried the Oprah book seal (bothing against Oprah-I just don't like things marring my book covers), so I went with Secret Life. Then, it sat in my pile of B&N purchases for a couple weeks, until I decided to pick it up and leaf through it. That casual perusal turned into a day-long marathon reading session; I simply couldn't put the book down. When I finished it, I had that satisfied reader's glow.

But why did I love Secret Life so much? Was it the plot? For those who aren't acquainted with the book, Lily Owens is a precocious just-turned-fourteen-year-old living in South Carolina in 1964. Her mother died (mysteriously) when she was young, leaving her with an abusive (albeit, the lighter end of the abuse spectrum...still bad, but not I-don't-want-to-read-this-it's-so-awful bad) father and a black nanny/surrogate mother, Rosaleen. When Rosaleen gets into trouble with the white racists (the novel is set against the signing of the Civil Rights Act), Lily seizes the excuse to run away from home, taking Rosaleen with her. They set out for a town whose name Lily found on the back of a picture that used to belong to her mother. Arriving, they find protection with a bee-keeping trio of black sisters whose self-sufficiency leaves Lily in awe. That summer, under the influence of these strong women, Lily begins to grow up; she faces everything from falling in love to learning the truth about her mother. I certainly enjoyed the plot; Sue Monk Kidd is good at revealing just glimpses of people's secrets, until it's suddenly time that they come out in the open. The plot moves along by teasing the reader with this information; in addition to the micro-level plot, she also develops a larger plot of racial tensions in the Deep South during the 1960s, which is well-woven and leaves it to the reader to judge. While the plotting was impressive, it was not my favorite part of the book.

Was it the themes, then? Sue Monk Kidd covers everything from racism to feminist theology to the 'greyness' that is other people. Perhaps I should explain what I mean by this last point. Monk Kidd resists the urge to characticture either the good or bad characters. Even Lily's father, whom we start out detesting for not loving and being mean to Lily becomes a flesh-and-blodd character with strengths and weaknesses by the end. The other characters' actions towards Lily, whether good or bad, are slowly explained (as Lily begins to look beyond her own preconceptions), and the reader learns with Lily about the complexity of any human being. This is an important theme, and well-executed. The feminist theology in the book-the bee keeping sisters have their own religion that revolves around a Black Madonna-is also a welcome presence. It's nice to see strong women finding the divine in its female form, instead of empowering only male religious figures. I grew up Catholic, and I always felt more pulled to Mary than God or Jesus, so that part of the book resonated with me. The racism is more in the background, but it does intrude to affect the lives of many of Lily's new friends. As a white girl, Lily hasn't realised how terrifying racism can be, until she sees it firsthand. Interestingly enough, she's usually angry at her black friends for standing up to the racists, which results in them going to jail/getting beat up/etc. instead of just backing down and staying safe. Meanwhile, all of her black friends challenge her own inherent racist views; at one point, she admits to herself that until she met the sisters, she didn't realise black people could be as smart as white people. Rosaleen, while she is Lily's main care giver, resists any Mammy-like stereotypes, berating Lily for thinking she needed to "save" her. The equal attention given to overt and latent racism makes the book quite powerful. For all that, though, you never love a book for its themes!

So, it must have been the characters. Certainly, they're all unique and vivid and most of them are women taking control over their lives. This book is about women: real, loveable women. They don't always do the right thing; in fact, sometimes they don't know what the right thing is. But, they all know that it's important to lead a well-examined life. This definitely appeals to me. Lily is painfully honest with herself, which allows the reader to really enter her life at this period of transformation. Meanwhile, the black women who take her in all end up becoming her mothers, though some are better than others! I'm afraid to talk too much about the characters, because I want you to go meet them for yourself. Suffice it to say, I really wish I could go visit all of them: that's how real they felt.

In the end, I think I loved Secret Life for all of the above reasons. After all, if great characters are stuck in a mediocre plot, or showing hackneyed themes, a book loses its power. Secret Life stunned me for the interplay between all these facets of a good novel; everything felt like it was balanced just so. And the book has a shimmer of magical realism about it, which always makes me happy. Some of the characters feel other-wordly, some of the plot coincidences destined. It's more subtle than Allende or Rushdie's willingness to play with the laws of reality, but nevertheless Sue Monk Kidd certainly adjusts the world of Secret Life. Just a little, but it's enough. Added to that is the book's essential Southerness; most of the story takes place during a South Carolina summer. You can feel the heat, hear the drawls, taste the okra. Sue Monk Kidd knows the South (she's from small-town Georgie, went to school at TCU, and now lives in South Carolina), and she brings you into it. Every woman should go read this book. I know that I'll treasure it.

Favourite Passages

I went off into a daydream about Zach pulling the truck over because he couldn't see to drive for the snow and us having a snowball fight, blasting each other with soft white snow cotton. I imagined us building a snow cave, sleeping with our bodies twined together to get warm, our arms and legs like black-and-white braids. (124)

August had explained to me how when they were children and their special month came around, their mother excused them from house chores and let them eat all their favorite foods even if it wrecked their teeth and stay up a full hour later at night doing whatever their heart desired. August said that her heart had desired to read books, so the whole month she got to prop on the sofa in the quiet of the living room reading after her sisters went to bed. To listen to August talk, it had been the highlight of her youth. (136)

All four of us turned into water nymphs and danced around the cool spray, just the way it must have been when Indians danced circles around blazing fires. Squirrels and Carolina wrens hopped as close as they dared and drank from the puddles, and you could almost see the blades of brown grass lift themselves up and turn green. (168)

That night, in my bed, when I closed my eyes, bee hum ran through my body. Ran through the whole earth. It was the oldest sound there was. Souls flying away. (213)

It is the peculiar nature of the world to go on spinning no matter what sort of heartbreak is happening (279)

Each day I visit black Mary, who looks at me with her face, older than old and ugly in a beautiful way. It seems the crevices run deeper in her body each time I see her, that her wooden skin ages before my eyes. I never get tired of looking at her thick arm jutting out, her fist like a bulb about to explode. She is a muscle of love, this Mary. (302)

And there they were. All these mothers. I have more mothers than any eight girls off the street. They are the moons shining over me. (302)

8 comments:

Petunia said...

I knew about this book before but didn't plan to read it. The Feminist Theology concept turned me off. But last week it was at the Goodwill so I picked it up. I'm not sure why.

Your review is great and I am now intrigued. I may put aside my world view and try to enjoy it as a good story.

MyUtopia said...

I didn't like the book. It was evenly divided among my book club.

Sarah said...

I've been considering reading this, judging by your enthusiastic review I should.

And coincidentally, as I read in my newspaper this morning, the 2nd July is the anniversary of the signing of the '64 Civil Rights Act by LBJ.

Maggie said...

Wow! I must post something on the anniversary and your review if this trivia is correct. I think I have others participating that have read it, too. Thanks for the thoughful review. I love the book but you will be amazed at those who didn't and are close friends. My very best friend hated it and I'm sure it is the closeness of Lily and Zach. Bi-racial situations are extremely touchy to some southerners. Go figure...

Nymeth said...

What a wonderful review!

Like you, I am sometimes a little wary of best sellers, and so I did not expect to like this much so much. I really fell in love with it, though. I'm so glad I picked it up.

Carol said...

I read this book several years ago when my daughter lent it to me and I loved it! There really isn't much I can add to that review. You said it all! I would go as far to say that I think it would be a good book for high school students to read and discuss.

Paul said...

I have never read anything by Sue Monk Kidd, but I am a native of Union,South Carolina. Enough said !

Lesley said...

I waited a long time (but not quite as long as you!) to read this as well, because of all the hype it was getting. I was very glad once I did to find it was worthy of all the praise. I know some people think it's schlocky or whatnot, but I loved it. Far better than Mermaid Chair, in my opinion, too.