Review: The Secret Life of Bees

August 18, 2011 Comments Off on Review: The Secret Life of Bees

This is probably the most Important book I’ve ever read, at least on a personal level. It’s one of those spiritual-bonding-between-women books, which I think is its own small genre, although this has to be the best member of it. It’s a book that I have always thought was just for women, but recently, when I was confronted by two attentive, interested men who wanted to know why, I had a hard time articulating the reason(s). The whole premise is that it is intensely important and beneficial, not to mention inevitable, if the world is working the way it should, for a woman to have a network of loving women around her, and a feminine divine that she can call on. It just seems like something men wouldn’t be interested in. I don’t know, maybe they shouldn’t be interested. Girls only. But if a man would like to read the book and tell me what he thinks, I would love to hear his perspective.

Now, this review is cheating a little because I’ve already read this book a hundred times, and I’ve also read two other books by Sue Monk Kidd. In her feminine-awakening memoir, Dance of the Dissident Daughter, she talks a lot about the “feminine wound,” which is the hole left when patriarchal society excised the divine feminine from our lives; it refers to the seemingly-sourceless pain that women often feel, especially when trodden on by men. And in The Secret Life of Bees, which revolves around bees and honey and Mary worship, one of the characters says that Mary “goes into the holes life has gouged out of us.” Now, I am an overly privileged white girl who has never been confronted with real sexism, which made me quite skeptical of Dance of the Dissident Daughter at first, but even I can feel my feminine wound being healed by reading this book. This book is like golden spackle: it fills up all your hurts and smoothes over the holes; it hands you a version of Mary anyone can get behind, and you start to feel healed and exalted. I think every woman needs a certain kind of intimate relationship with another woman: mother, best friend, or god. Maybe all three. Maybe they’re all the same thing.

The book is set in South Carolina in 1964; Lily Owens is fourteen and crushed by her lack of a mother. The setting is fascinating, the story is great, and the writing is wonderful, even if it sometimes verges on the melodramatic. That’s okay, though; it’s all good melodrama, and it’s melodramatic in the way that the Bible is melodramatic—an important, now-hear-this way, which is fitting in that this is sort of the Bible of a Mary cult for women. And, speaking as an English major, the symbolism and figurative language is just about perfect. Bees are a running theme, because almost all bees in a hive are female and live to serve their queen, who is the mother of them all. Get it? But it’s very, very well done, mostly in epigrams, and never too bluntly. It’s all just a long meditation on the roles of women towards each other. Between Chimera self-defense classes and my proclivity for setting Marian poems to music, this book really hit home for me. I highly recommend it to women, and (sure, why not?) also to men. Tell me what you think of it.

EXCERPT:

Then I turned around and looked back toward the door where I’d come in. Over in the corner was a carving of a woman nearly three feet tall. She was one of those figures that had leaned out from the front of a ship in olden times, so old she could have been on the Santa María with Columbus for all I knew.

She was black as could be, twisted like driftwood from being out in the weather, her face a map of all the storms and journeys she’d been through. Her right arm was raised, as if she was pointing the way, except her fingers were closed in a fist. It gave her a serious look, like she could straighten you out if necessary.

Even though she wasn’t dressed up like Mary and didn’t resemble the picture on the honey jar, I knew that’s who she was. She had a faded red heart painted on her breast and a yellow crescent moon, worn down and crooken, painted where her body would have blended into the ship’s wood. A candle inside a tall red glass threw glints and glimmers across her body. 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.

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