The Secret Lives of Bees

Author: Sue Monk Kidd

Published by: Penguin

Reviewed by Dorothy Doremus


            A true coming of age novel, The Secret Life of Bees is set in the summer of 1964.  Just as President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act, a young girl begins to question the meaning of her motherís death and racism in the South.

            Lily Owens lives on her fatherís peach farm.  Her mother is dead and her housekeeper, Rosaleen, is her mother figure and confidant.  Lily has just turned fourteen and is fascinated by two things: the bees that seem to gravitate toward her in the evening and finding as much information about her mother as she possibly can.  Lilyís mother passed away when she was still a toddler and although Lily can remember certain details about her death, not everything is very clear.  Her father, affectionately known as T. Ray, is not exactly the father type and continually dodges the questions surrounding his wifeís death, making Lily extremely suspicious.

            One day, Lily discovers a box of her motherís belongings in the attic of their home.  The box contains some gloves and a mysterious picture of a Black Madonna with the words Tiburon, South Carolina written on the back.  What does this have to do with Lilyís mother?  This question begins to haunt Lily to the point that she needs to discover the truth.  With Lilyís home life on a fast-paced decline and Rosaleen in trouble for spitting on a racist, the two decide to flee for Tiburon.  Rosaleen has no idea why Lily has chosen this town until she confronts her and discovers she is chasing her motherís ghost, a fact that leads Rosaleen to believe that Lily has finally ďlost her marbles.Ē

            Once the duo arrives in Tiburon, they seek out information on the picture of the Madonna which Lily spots on a honey jar in a general store - the same exact photo as the one found in the box at home.  The store clerk refers them to the Boatwright sisters, manufacturers of the best honey in the world who just happen to live right there in Tiburon.  Lily is certain that her mother was at the bee farm at one time.

            Three sisters - May, June and August - run the farm.  May is very unstable since the death of her twin sister April with whom she shared a unique connection.  June is doing her best to avoid marrying her boyfriend Neil.  August is the matriarch of the family - the glue that holds the business and the family together.  Lily lies to August, telling her that she and Rosaleen are heading to Virginia to stay with relatives after the death of both her parents.  Luckily, August believes the tale, beginning a journey of discovery for Lily. 

            At rest on the farm, Lily soon falls for Zach, a beekeeper assistant.  Zach is a determined teenager who wants to become a lawyer despite the fact that racial barriers stand in his way.  While Zach has feelings for Lily, he cannot act upon them thanks to the very same barriers.  The story of these two characters is just charming and wonderful.

            All comes to a turning point when August reveals a secret to Lily followed by the tragic death of a main character that shakes the sisters to the core of their faith. 

            There are so many wonderful stories within the main story of The Secret Life of Bees that strengthen your faith and really paint a picture of what it was like to be an African American in 1964, a year of change and hope.  The book is just brilliant - not too long and drawn out, yet not lacking in details.  I didnít come away feeling like I missed something in the story.  I found myself looking forward to my lunch break so I can read just one more chapter.  The book lived up to all my expectations of what a good novel should be: likeable characters in a charming story that flows gracefully.  The Secret Life of Bees is definitely a novel you should not miss.


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