Call me a cynic, but I am usually one to avoid anything with “Secret Life” in the title, because that just screams “Lifetime movie” to me. In the case of The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, I should have trusted my judgment.
The story is narrated by Lily Owens, a bookish teenage girl living with her abusive father, T. Ray, and her black nanny, Rosaleen, in South Carolina in 1964. Lily is haunted by the memory of accidentally shooting her mother as a small child during a violent scuffle between her parents. All that Lily has left of her mother is a wooden Black Madonna ornament with an unknown address on the back. One day, she accompanies Rosaleen when she goes into town to register to vote, and the two are harassed by three racist men. The ensuing altercation leads to Lily and Rosaleen fleeing town, and Lily heads to the address on the ornament, hoping it can provide her shelter and lead her to some answers about her mother.
All this seemed very promising, and I was intrigued and wanted to read on. Sadly, as soon as Lily and Rosaleen arrive at the Pepto-Bismol-pink house of the black Calendar sisters—August, June and May—the plot veers into sheer contrivance.
August is the wise eldest sister who dishes out sage-like advice at the plot’s convenience. June is a bitter woman scorned in love who keeps turning down marriage proposals from her ex, Neil. May, the youngest, is mentally ill and emotionally fragile, so her sisters have to take care of her. These three are little more than one-dimensional stereotypes, and it’s impossible to take them seriously.
These women fill the void of a maternal figure in Lily’s life, and she soon finds her place within the black community and begins to worship the Black Madonna. She forges a spiritual connection with the bees that August, a beekeeper, cares for. She also befriends Zach, a black boy in the neighborhood, who becomes her love interest. During this time, Lily struggles with her feelings of resentment towards her father and her own low self-image. However, this new world of hers never attains depth, and its whimsical quality becomes almost cartoonish, with its attempts at meaning turning up superficial.
All things considered, The Secret Life of Bees had the potential to be a good novel. Instead it is populated by stock characters, slathered with mawkish sentiment and eventually culminates in a contrived ending that reeks of deus ex machina. I say skip this one if you’re looking for a substantial coming-of-age novel, unless its saccharine quality is your guilty pleasure.