The book is a stunner and impressive for several reasons, among them the fact that this is the debut novel from non-fiction writer Kidd, who wrote two highly regarded memoirs, “ The Dance of the Dissident Daughter“ and “When the Heart Waits.“ She has been hailed by some of the most prestigious of her peers as the heir apparent to Carson McCullers, and the quotes on the back cover are filled with eye-popping, wondrous words of appreciation from the likes of Ursula Hegi, Anne Rivers Siddons, Anita Shreve, Joanna Trollope, Susan Isaacs and Shelby Hearon, to name a few.
Their praise is deserved. Already optioned for film, “The Secret Life of Bees“ is a very moving story about mothers, daughters, life, death, love, courage, truth and redemption. And bees, of course. Any of these subjects on their own would be a considerable undertaking, but Kidd weaves them all together in a beautiful tapestry that occasionally takes the reader aback with its grace and power. Quite simply, this is not a book to wait around to get to later, something made clear from its first moments:
“At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.
During the day I heard them tunneling through the walls of my bedroom, sounding like a radio tuned to static in the next room, and I imagined them in there turning the walls into honeycombs, with honey seeping out for me to taste.
The bees came the summer of 1964, the summer I turned fourteen and my life went spinning off into a whole new orbit, and I mean whole new orbit. Looking back on it now, I want to say the bees were sent to me. I want to say they showed up like the angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary, setting events in motion I could never have guessed. I know it is presumptuous to compare my small life to hers, but I have reason to believe she wouldn‘t mind; I will get to that. Right now it‘s enough to say that despite everything that happened that summer, I remain tender toward the bees.
July 1, 1964, I lay in bed, waiting for the bees to show up, thinking of what Rosaleen had said when I told her about their nightly visitations.
“Bees swarm before death,“ she‘d said.
Rosaleen had worked for us since my mother died. My daddy - who I called T. Ray because “Daddy“ never fit him - had pulled her out of the peach orchard, where she‘d worked as one of his pickers. She had a big round face and a body that sloped out from her neck like a pup tent, and she was so black that night seemed to seep from her skin. She lived alone in a little house tucked back in the woods, not far from us, and came every day to cook, clean, and be my stand-in mother. Rosaleen had never had a child herself, so for the last ten years I‘d been her pet guinea pig.
Bees swarm before death. She was full of crazy ideas that I ignored, but I lay there thinking about this one, wondering if the bees had come with my death in mind. Honestly, I wasn‘t that disturbed by the idea. Every one of those bees could have descended on me like a flock of angels and stung me till I died, and it wouldn‘t have been the worst thing to happen. People who think dying is the worst thing don‘t know a thing about life.
My mother died when I was four years old. It was a fact of life, but if I brought it up, people would suddenly get interested in their hangnails and cuticles, or else distant places in the sky, and seem not to hear me. Once in a while, though, some caring soul would say, “Just put it out of your head, Lily. It was an accident. You didn‘t mean to do it.“
A southern gothic tale set in South Carolina in 1964, the story is narrated by 14-year-old Lily Owen, who was nurtured and loved by her deceased mother, Deborah, an event that has radically reshaped her life and left her emotionally invisible to her father and brother who have a peach farm. Lilys memories about her mothers death are haunting and blurry, but suggest that a then four-year-old Lily caused the tragedy in an encounter with her abusive father, T. Ray. . The only she Lily has to the mystery are a strange picture of a Black Madonna, with the words “Tiburon, South Carolina“ scrawled on the back and the love of Rosaleen, the African-American “stand-in mother“ hired to care for her.
This being the South in 1964, an incident where Rosaleen insults three of the town‘s fiercest racists as she tries to register to vote sends the two on the lam. Their point of destination and destiny is Tiburon, where they believe they can find the answers that have evaded them. In Tiburon, they encounter a trio of black beekeeping sisters, August, June and May Boatwright, who take in the fugitives who introduce Lily to the remarkable world of bees, honey, and the Black Madonna who rules their household. Tiburon, you see, is the headquarters of Black Madonna Honey, and as she works for the Boatwrights, Lily discovers answers and, for the first time in her life, acceptance and peace as she learns to “find the mother in herself“ and that “the “the hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.“
There is much, much more to this fine story that will keep the reader turning the pages, and occasionally stopping to reread some of the passages. Its also one of those rare books that deserves a second read, simply because there is so much here, and it is so beautifully executed in every regard. If this is an indication of where Kidds fictional work may be headed, its a potent one, and readers might question whether shell be able to top an effort like this that is so exceptionally fine and potentially stands to become a classic. Something says that she will, though, and this reviewer, among many others, will be eagerly looking forward to whatever comes next.