Squawk Radio

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Lisa on "The Secret Life Of Bees"

Have you ever heard about a book that everyone says is SO good, and the buzz is everywhere and it occupies an entire wall of the bookstore and there’s no escaping it . . . and as a result, some ornery quirk causes you avoid it like the plague?

I felt like that about the Secret Life Of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. I can’t explain why. Maybe it was the unassuming impressionistic cover that screamed “lit’rature”. The title didn’t help. I’ve hated bees ever since I was stung on the face when I was eight and my right eye swelled up so I couldn’t see out of it for two weeks. I don’t like to read about bees or people who like bees. So this book, bees and buzz, held no appeal for me.

Besides the title, cover and subject matter, I didn’t like the fact that everyone else was reading it and insisting I read it too. It started to feel like a homework assignment. And basically, in the herd of mankind, I’m a schizophrenic sheep . . . most of the time I’ll follow along and graze with the others, but every now and then I decide to break free, bleating about my rugged individualism . . . I do something that feels daringly noncomformist . . . and then I’m running back to eat Happy Meals with the rest of the herd.

So one day I was at the airport bookstore with a three hour flight ahead of me, and there was nothing to buy except a couple of run-of-the-mill thrillers, some romances I’d already read, a biased political biography that would undoubtedly cause me to scream with rage on the plane (they don’t like you to do that) . . . and The Secret Life Of Bees.

Sheeplike and sullen, I bought the book, got on the plane, ate the six peanuts out of the microscopic package the flight attendant gave me and drank the three ounces of diet coke poured over ten ice cubes. And I started the first page.

The three hour flight seemed to last about three minutes. This book was so honest, gripping, sad, lovely, I forgot I was reading. Only the great books can do that, pull you inside the story until you are not reading words so much as absorbing them.

Lily Owens is a thirteen year old white girl, living in South Carolina in 1964. When she was four, her mother died in a handgun accident, the reverberations of which run through Lily’s life like the constant drone of a beehive. She lives with T.Ray, her abusive father who owns a peach farm, and Rosaleen, a black housekeeper. T.Ray has made Lily believe she is responsible for her mother’s death. Lily’s intense longing for her mother is so powerful, it reaches out and grabs your heart. “This is what I know about myself,” Lily says. “She was all I wanted. And I took her away.”

The story begins as bees swarm in Lily’s bedroom one night. A potentially lethal cloud pulsates and fills the room with Lily at its center, but they leave her unharmed, and vanish before anyone else sees them.

Soon afterward, Rosaleen, on her way to register to vote for the first time, insults some of the town racists by pouring snuff juice on their shoes. She is beaten, arrested, and will likely be killed in jail long before she ever gets to trial. Lily breaks Rosaleen out of jail, and they flee to Tiburon, South Carolina, a town that has some mysterious connection to Lily’s mother.

It is in Tiburon that Lily finds the beekeeping Boatwright sisters, a magnificent trio of black women named August, May and June. And it is here, with these sisters, that Lily uncovers the secrets of her mother’s past, learns the art of beekeeping, and finds love. Not just love from the women who surround her, but love within the puzzle of her own heart. A delicate but triumphant feminism flows through the novel, exploring the power and strength of women, and the ability as August describes, “not just to love--but to persist in love.”

The volatile issues in the story--race, betrayal, death, forgiveness--are handled deftly and with great care, and all of it is served superbly by Sue Monk Kidd’s unique writing style. Few authors have this ability to write with such economy, describing sophisticated thoughts with perfect simplicity.

I won’t spoil the many surprises tucked between the pages of The Secret Life Of Bees--you’ll have to find out for yourself what happens to Lily, and whether T. Ray finds her, and how her mother really died. But I can tell you it’s an empowering and joyful book, and you’ll never feel the same way about bees.

If you’ve read The Secret Life Of Bees, please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts about the novel. And confess--have you ever avoided a book for a long time and then finally read and loved it?
Lisa Kleypas, 9:09 AM