I found a way to recover part of my old blog content, so I decided to rerun some posts from that, mainly reviews of books I liked. The following review was first published in March 2009. (All tagging is new, and I’m afraid I don’t have any means of saving the old blog comments.)
The book: The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd
The edition: Penguin Books US 2002 edition
The story: South Carolina in the 60s is a place of strong racial tensions. Against that backdrop, this is the story of white, 14-year-old Lily Owens, who runs away from an abusive father and from the memory of having accidentally killed her mother, and ends up living with a family of black bee-keepers. It’s the story of her coming of age, through violence, death, love, and the strong presence of a group of women, a real sisterhood.
My thoughts: when I signed up for the Bookring that brought me this book, I only knew one thing about it, its title, and it was enough to make me curious. Then, page after page, it not only lived up to its promise (how many good titles cover awful books?), but I discovered a great story, great narration, great characters. Despite some things feeling a bit like deus-ex-machina solutions, it was all very believable, and I did care for the characters and for what happened to them.
What I liked: the bee’s hum and the honey smell almost coming out of the pages. The fact that Lily’s middle name is Melissa (honey-bee), although this fact is never underlined. The strong bond among the Daughters of Mary winning even the strongest opposition or the hardest moments in life.
What I didn’t like: the Daughters of Mary makeshift religion. I found that part utterly ridiculous and over the top. Also, I was not completely convinced by the ending –and even less so after reading this explanation by the author (CAUTION: SPOILER AHEAD):
I was influenced, too, by my impression, right or wrong, that “happy endings” in literary novels were often sneered at. I decided she would have to go back to the peach farm with T. Ray. Then one night I had a dream in which August came to me, complaining about my idea for an ending. “You must let Lily stay with her ‘mothers,'” she told me.
Best character: many of them were lovable in their own way. August is the prototype of the perfect, understanding, knowledgeable, strong woman. I liked May despite her quirks. And there are two minor characters I liked a lot: Mr. Forrest, the lawyer who starts Zach out on his revolutionary (for a black child in the 60s) career as a lawyer, and Neil, June’s wooer (see below).
Best scene: Neil is always proposing to June, and she is always turning him down. At one time they have a big quarrell about it, but then everything goes on just the same as ever, as Neil is in love and June is, too, but she is too afraid. (CAUTION: MORE SPOILERS AHEAD!) This scene is after a great tragedy hits June.
“What are you doing here?” June asked.
He cleared his throat, rubbed his sideburns. “I–I came over here hoping for a word with you.”
This sounded so stiff coming out of his mouth that June narrowed her eyes and studied him a second. “Are you all right?”
“I”m fine.” He put his hands in his pockets. Took them out. “I just want a word with you.”
She stood there waiting. “Well, I’m listening,” she said.
“I thought we could take a drive.”
She looked around the kitchen. “If you haven’t noticed, I’m up to my ears in work, Neil.”
“I can see that, but–”
“Look, just tell me what it is,” June said, starting to get into one of her huffs. “What is so all-fired important?”
I glanced at August, who had her lips screwed over to the side, trying to look busy. Rosaleen, on the other hand, had stopped all semblance of work and looked from June to Neil. Back to June.
“Hell,” he said, “I came over here planning to ask you, for the hundreth time, to marry me.”
I dropped my spoon in the sink. August laid down the honey drizzle. June opened her mouth and closed it without anything coming out. Everyone just stood there.
Come on. Don’t mess up your time to live.
The house creaked, like old houses do. Neil glanced at the door. I felt my shirt dampen all under my arms. I had the sensation I used to get in fifth grade when the teacher would write some nonsense word on the blackboard, like “pnteahel,” and we had two minutes to unscramble it and find the word “elephant” before she dinged her bell. I used to break out in a sweat trying to beat the clock. I had that feeling now, like Neil was going to walk out the door before June could unscramble the answer in her heart.
Rosaleen said, “Well, don’t you just stand there with your mouth open, June. Say something.”
June stared at Neil, and I could see the struggle in her face. The surrender she had to make inside. Not just to Neil but to life. Finally she let out a long, sighing breath. “All right,” she said. “Let’s get married.”
The verdict: a well-written, enjoyable book (rating: 4.5/5). Read this if you liked Anita Nair’s Mistress, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and/or Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (but without the magical realism). Don’t read this if you are looking for a light read.