Sue Monk Kidd,
The Secret Life of Bees
(Viking Penguin, 2002)

Move over Bridges of Madison County, there's a new "heartwarmer" looking to edge you out!

Why do we do this? Is it truly requisite of our gender that we must all read this mind-numbing, stomach-turning schmaltz, just because our mothers/sisters/best friends all phone up at the same time to tell us how "amazing" the newest offering is? Who is the first woman who reads these books anyway, thus dictating that all the rest of us will be shamed into doing so as well?

I suppose there's Oprah to blame, though this book is not technically on her reading list. And, actually, after checking to make sure, I found out that some pretty good books are. So, exonerate Oprah. But someone should be held accountable for this, before another torturously "life-changing epic" is written, or god forbid, is snatched up by Hollywood, at which point all us chicks must flock together to be punished by the story a second time.

I swear, three women I respect in all other aspects of life insisted this was the book of the year, a "must read." So I did, because I used to trust them. If I can, I will attempt to save you from the same agony I've endured for the past few evenings, when I could have been watching paint dry instead.

The plot is this:

Lily Owens is 14, living in rural South Carolina with her cruel and neglectful father and the haunting memory of her mother, who was killed accidentally 10 years previously. Lily, a white girl, has been raised primarily by her Negro nanny, Rosaleen.

The setting is 1964, in a town with a deep South mentality. When Rosaleen gets the idea to go into town to register to vote, we can all pretty much guess what's bound to happen. Inevitably, she ticks off the worst rednecks available, is beaten up and tossed in jail. That's what always happens in these books, although this is one of the most typecast I've ever seen. Luckily, Lily is able to spring her out without too much trouble and they head off to Tiburon to seek shelter, both now fugitives from the law.

This is where they find August and her sisters, beekeepers extraordinaire. These three women, along with their eccentric group of friends, eventually provide Lily with a safe haven and, through the honey-harvesting experience, the answers to all of life's questions and the innate wisdom that every woman (apparently) carries within herself.

August resembles Shug Avery, of Alice Walker's wonderful novel The Temple of My Familiar. It's a very washed-out version, but some similarities -- both are leaders of their own concocted religions and maintain a strong inner calm -- do exist. Never do I get the sense from any of the characters here that they could have real issues and feel them deeply, nor do I see them fighting for their beliefs. This is especially troubling, as civil rights infractions come into their lives and they do little to respond.

There are also a whole lot of generalizations made in this book. I suppose the story was meant to be about race relations and the bonds women tend to form. In the end, though, it just comes out sounding trite, a bland and undetailed version of a story told many times before.

And speaking of stories told too many times, the landmarks used to define the era are the same old ones we hear over and over. Did no one think of anything but getting a rocket to the moon? Were there any other Civil Rights workers besides Martin Luther King Jr.? Not to diminish the importance of these people and events, but give us a little credit for being able to recognize the '60s without being hit over the head with history book references.

Clearly, Kidd is trying to give us a sense of what she experienced, growing up in the same time and places as her story is set. It comes off more of an apology, though -- and an indictment of all white citizens of the South. As great a force as the Civil Rights Movement was, I don't feel it is truly reflected very strongly here. With such shallow characters it is hard to believe in their motivations, and harder yet to feel they are capable of affecting significant change.

This is Kidd's first try at fiction, so perhaps I should ease up a bit. Usually she writes memoirs, and I think she deserves some congratulations for trying a new genre. Although a sequel is not currently planned, I hope someday she decides to revisit this story and these characters. I do think it was a good concept -- if only it had been better developed.

- Rambles
written by Katie Knapp
published 3 April 2004

Buy it from