This book came recommended by a friend who told me she bawled through it, and despite knowing myself and my icy heart, I expected to be so deeply moved, too. Although I didn’t cry over the book, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a powerful and moving story.
Lily Owens’ life has been overshadowed by the incomplete memory she has of the day her mother died. She has tried and tried to make sense of things, tried and tried to cling to the idea that T.Ray, her father, has some deeply-buried feelings of love for her. But when Lily and Rosaleen, the Black woman who has largely raised her, have a run-in with several racist men, the two end up fleeing town. With no where else to go, Lily leads them to Tiburon, South Carolina, the only other place Lily knows her mother has been. Somehow, Lily is committed to figuring out who her mother was. And while the answers are not quite what she wanted to find, she discovers exactly what she’s needed all along.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is a story of adolescent discovery in all senses. Lily must discover the truth about her mother, which plays a role in the truth of who Lily is, too. She discovers truths about family and faith and self-sufficiency. And set in 1964, it’s a story of discovery regarding prejudices about skin color. Lily’s whole life has been a story of rejection and abuse, with her deceased mother representing all the love and acceptance Lily’s been missing and craving. When she and Rosaleen land in Tiburon and find themselves staying with the Boatwright sisters, Lily begins to realize she has some degree of control over the narrative of her life.
Kidd uses a first-person perspective to give readers insight into Lily’s mind and emotions, and this style is perfect for the story she had to tell. Sometimes seeming like a child, sometimes struggling to function as an adult, Kidd captures the tumultuous growing up that Lily faces in trying to take control of her life. I’m a little uncertain about the ending, however. When T.Ray finally tracks Lily down and comes to try and take her, Lily is still trying to uncover some latent love within his heart, despite all the abuse she suffered (and the abuse her mother surly must have suffered, as well). And while I recognize that would certainly be in keeping with a child or youth’s experience (heck, even an adult’s experience when coming face-to-face with the truth that was never admitted), it was still hard to read. Though Lily stands up for herself and refuses to go with him, it was still so heartbreaking to read how she would still try to convince herself of love within his actions or imagine a new expression. The line between hope and reality can be hard to walk, and even though it’s fictional, it’s hard to read, too.
All in all, The Secret Life of Bees is a sweet story of power and, yes, love. Despite everything, Lily chooses eventually to value herself more than she’s been taught to (in part because living with the Boatwright sisters, she relearns how to value herself). It’s a story of rising above and choosing what defines you.
Keep in mind, the story could prove triggering, in varying degrees, due to the presence of child abuse and neglect.