The Secret Life of BeesFourteen year-old Lily lives on a peach farm in South Carolina with her father, T. Ray and her only friend, a black servant named Rosaleen. Lily has grown up being told by her bitter, cold-hearted father that she accidentally killed her mother when she was four. One afternoon, when she accompanies Rosaleen to register to vote, Rosaleen gets arrested and beaten. Lily and Rosaleen become fugitives from justice, travelling to Tiburon, South Carolina in the hopes of uncovering the mystery surrounding Lily’s mother. While in Tiburon they find sanctuary with the three beekeeping Boatwright sisters – austere June, wise August and child-like, sensitive May.

I’d say The Secret Life of Bees is definitely one of the more feminine books I’ve read. I had a feeling it would be too sweet for me. I always like a bit of grit in my books. And it is full of warmth and heart, about the bonds between women, redemption, and finding family in unexpected places. It’s also charming and uplifting. But The Secret Life of Bees is spirited, tenacious and eccentric enough that I won’t hold that against it. Sue Monk Kidd’s writing is lush and evocative. Every scene feels like it’s bathed in an eerie golden glow. Yet her writing can also be surprisingly harsh: ‘The wall brought to my mind the bleeding slabs of meat Rosaleen used to cook, the gashes she made up and down them, stuffing them with pieces of wild, bitter garlic.’ I’m always looking for that contrast in the novels I read – hope sitting alongside loss, violence seen against beauty.

Even though The Secret Life of Bees is Lily’s story it does touch on the civil rights movement and racial tension in the South – there’s the animosity and violence Rosaleen experiences while registering to vote, the integration of the schools, Zach’s arrest, the reaction of the Tiburon townspeople to Lily living in a house with black women. Lily learns about racism from the experiences of the Boatwright sisters, Rosaleen and her new friend Zach, challenging her view of the world. Zach wants to go to college, so automatically Lily suggests he could get a football scholarship. He says what he really wants is to be a lawyer. Lily replies that that’s fine but

‘I’ve just never heard of a Negro lawyer, that’s all. You’ve got to hear of these things before you can imagine them.’

‘Bullshit. You gotta imagine what’s never been.’

Lily’s voice is so strong I feel like I could almost hear her speak. I couldn’t help thinking of the stark contrast to lifeless Marina in Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. There’s so much character and life in Lily and that’s a big part of why The Secret Life of Bees works. Lily is a great heroine – tough, not afraid to break the rules, smart, and sassy: ‘I should’ve been in my room right then crying my eyeballs out, and here I was having the stupidest conversation of my life.’

Kidd’s novel was frustrating at times. Lily desperately wants to ask the Boatwright sisters whether they knew her mother but she doesn’t. Over and over again she gets close to asking, guessing what the answer might be, but she keeps losing her nerve. Now, that’s understandable, Lily’s young and confused but it was hard to see her keep chickening out.

The Secret Life of Bees is heavy on the spirituality. Prior to this novel Sue Monk Kidd wrote two memoirs detailing her spiritual journey from Christianity to a more feminine spirituality. And her experience in suffusing Christianity with the sacred feminine shows in The Secret Life of Bees. Not being a religious person myself, I didn’t love the focus on spirituality. But I responded to the way the women felt free to take the parts of Christianity that worked for them, that made them feel connected to God and nature, and blended them with something new. There’s something almost magical about the faith the women create for themselves – their ceremonies involving the statue of Our Lady in Chains, coating the statue in honey, placing their hand on her heart, chanting.

The Secret Life of Bees has a mystical feel in general; it’s a lot like a grown-up fairy tale. There’s good versus evil (T. Ray), finding sanctuary with strange fairy godmother-types (the Boatwright sisters), and the final confrontation with evil and ‘vanquishing’ of the creature. In the past I’ve been critical when characters’ actions neatly fit a plot archetype but don’t feel genuine (Mister Pip) but here Kidd handles it well (aside from some frustration at Lily not just asking straight-out about her mother). The characters still feel real. If you’re in the mood for a warm, funny, sad book about civil rights, spirituality, sisterhood, and growing up then you can’t go past The Secret Life of Bees.