Monday, January 30, 2017

Book Review: The Secret Life of Bees - Highly Recommend

Although I've only ever attempted her fiction, I'm beginning to think that I would appreciate anything written by Sue Monk Kidd. Like with The Invention of Wings, a top read of 2016, I listened to The Secret Life of Bees in audio form. The beauty of her word choice is stunning. She is capable of crafting gorgeous, intensely emotional images. Thankfully, I own a copy of the book and did manage to select one passage that struck me as incredibly evocative. Here is an example of her word wizardry, as the main character first comes across a statue of the black Mary:

"She was a mix of mighty and humble all in one. I didn't know what to think, but what I felt was magnetic and so big it ached like the moon had entered my chest and filled it up. The only thing I could compare it to was the feeling I got one time when I walked back from the peach stand and saw the sun spreading across the late afternoon, setting the top of the orchard on fire while darkness collected underneath. Silence had hovered over my head, beauty multiplying in the air, the trees so transparent I felt I could see through to something pure inside them. My chest had ached then, too, this very same way.... Standing there, I loved myself and I hated myself. That's what the black Mary did to me, made me feel my glory and my shame at the same time."

The Secret Life of Bees spins a gorgeous tale of Lily, a young girl trapped in a cruel life with her fierce, unloving father and a strong, determined black nanny named Rosaleen. When Rosaleen hits a spot of trouble for defiance against three white racist men, she is arrested and beaten in jail. Lily visits her in the hospital and smuggles her out. The two run away to a small town in South Carolina where Lily believes her deceased mother once had connections. There they encounter three black bee-keeping sisters, each with a unique story to tell. As Lily and Rosaleen settle in, Lily must decide how much of the truth to share and how much of the truth to seek.

I loved learning about bees and their hives. I loved how bee-keeping paralleled so many of the themes the book explored. The image of the black Mary also stood for so much and, as relics will do, inspired noble feelings and introspection. I came to love the sisters, Lily, and her troubled mother. Their stories were touching and real and full of great meaning and purpose.

Once again, I was thrilled to find a section at the back of the book where the author answers questions about her writing process. She talks about inducing "madness" by sitting on the dock overlooking her creek and thinking about the novel. (This is exactly what my brain requires before I sit down to write. When I fail to walk and ruminate on a novel, the writing can be like pulling teeth. When I have the time and opportunity to absorb the world around me while moving and thinking, the writing tends to flow more easily.)

When asked if she knew the ending of her novel when she started, I was excited to learn that she had no idea about the ending or even the middle (take that all you writing instructors who claim you have to know the ending before you begin). The farthest her creative juices flowed was into the scene of the two fleeing their sorry, trapped lives. She also said that at one point she was stuck. She worried about the ending until a character from the story came to her in a dream and complained about her initial idea for the ending. This (along with a recent Facebook post from Kate DiCamillo saying "it's okay for the story to be a big mess. Maybe it is even necessary for it to be a big mess. Keep going. Don't give up. The story will find its way.") was very freeing to me in my current writing struggles. I'm so thankful for the really great writers (like Kidd and DiCamillo) who are willing to share about their process and encourage fledgling writers like myself.

If you are seeking a masterpiece to read this year, look no further than the novels of Sue Monk Kidd and definitely give this specific book a chance (even if you might be tired of books about racial tension in the South in the 60s). The words sparkle and shimmer. The images will stay with you for a long time and the characters will worm their way into your heart. You won't regret picking up this book.

I had to immediately seek out the movie starring Dakota Fanning (and my library even had it). It was marvelous. It carried forth the same intensity of emotion. I cried (thankfully, the boys were gone, so I could watch without interruption and without being laughed at for my tears). Do read the book first, however; as always, the book is better than the movie!

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