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The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd


Rating: (Recommended)


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The Mother Inside

If Oprah were still picking books, the debut novel of Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, would surely be a selection. Kidd introduces readers to Lily Owens, a fourteen year old girl living in South Carolina, and takes us on a journey of relationships to explore notions of motherhood and home. There’s something in this book to attract most readers: coming of age; maternal relationships; spirituality; love and romance; grief and loss; friendship; alienation, and more about bees than you think there is to know. Here’s an excerpt from the middle of the book about what really matters, and an explanation of the title. August is the owner of the bee business; Zach is her high-school age employee; Lily is the narrator; June and May are August’s sisters.

“Though I’d done bee patrol with Zach, I hadn’t been back to the hives with August since that first time. I pulled on long cotton pants that used to be June’s and August’s white shirt, which needed the sleeves rolled up about ten turns. Then I placed the jungle helmet on my head, letting the veil fall down over my face.
We walked to the woods beside the pink house with her stories still pulled soft around our shoulders. I could feel them touching me in places, like an actual shawl.
 ‘There is one thing I don’t get,’ I said.
 ‘What’s that?’
 ‘How come if your favorite color is blue, you painted your house so pink.
She laughed. ‘That was May’s doing. She was with me the day I went to the paint store to pick out the color. I had a nice tan color in mind, but May latched on to this sample called Caribbean Pink. She said it made her feel like dancing a Spanish flamenco. I thought, ‘Well, this is the tackiest color I’ve ever seen, and we’ll have half the town talking about us, but if it can lift May’s heart like that, I guess she ought to live inside it.’
 ‘All this time I just figured you liked pink,’ I said.
She laughed again. ‘You know, some things don’t matter much, Lily. Like the color of a house. How big is that in the overall scheme of life? But lifting a person’s heart – now, that matters. The whole problem with people is – ‘
 ‘They don’t know what matters and what doesn’t,’ I said, filling in her sentence and feeling proud of myself for doing so.
 ‘I was gonna say, The problem is they know what matters, but they don’t choose it. You know how hard that is, Lily. I love May, but it was still so hard to choose Caribbean Pink. The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.’
I couldn’t locate a stray bee anywhere. The hives looked like an abandoned neighborhood, the air groggy with heat. You got the impression the bees were inside having a big siesta. Maybe all that excessive work had finally caught up with them.
 ‘Where are they?’ I said.
August placed her fingers to her lips, signaling me to be quiet. She lifted off her helmet and laid the side of her face flat against the top of the hive box. ‘Come listen,’ she whispered.
I removed my hat, tucking it under my arm, and placed my face next to hers so that we were practically nose to nose.
 ‘You hear that?’ she said.
A sound rushed up. A perfect hum, high-pitched and swollen, like someone had put the teakettle on and it had come to a boil.
 ‘They’re cooling the hives down,’ she said, and her breath broke over my face with the smell of spearmint. ‘That’s the sound of one hundred thousand bee wings fanning the air.
She closed her eyes and soaked it in the way you imagine people at a fancy orchestra concert drinking up highbrow music. I hope it’s not to backward to say that I felt like I had never heard anything on my hi-fi back home that came out that good. You would have to hear it yourself to believe the perfect pitch, the harmony parts, how the volume rolled up and down. We had our ears pressed to a giant music box.
Then the whole side of my face started to vibrate as if the music had rushed into my pores. I could see August’s skin pulsating the tiniest bit. When we stood back up, my cheek prickled and itched.
 ‘You were listening to bee air-conditioning,’ August said. ‘Most people don’t have any idea about all the complicated life going on inside a hive. Bees have a secret life we don’t know anything about.’
I loved the idea of bees having a secret life, just life the one I was living.”

The Secret Life of Bees exudes the nectar of Southern atmosphere, along with fine description and dialogue. Lily finds mothers who love her, and become stable influences in her life, like the queen bee provides for the hive. Set in the summer of 1964, there’s plenty of racial conflict to capture the key conflicts of that time. After reading this book, you’ll join me in looking forward the next offering from Sue Monk Kidd.

Steve Hopkins, July 24, 2002


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the August 2002 issue of Executive Times


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