Monday, October 28, 2013

Book Review: The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily's fierce-hearted black "stand-in mother," Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina--a town that holds the secret to her mother's past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna. This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.

So, I've mentioned before the virtual book club I belong to (seriously, there is NOTHING better than discussing books with intelligent people). For this round we read The Secret Life of Bees. I will confess that this was a re-read for me (well, in all honesty, a re-skim). I read this book years and years ago, but it's a powerful one. There are parts of this book I've never forgotten. It just stays with you.

Even though the 1960's segregated south is the backdrop for this story, and racial tensions play a big roll in the plot, I wouldn't say that racism is necessarily the main theme of this book. Mostly, this is a book about women, and the strength that women find when they come together and form a community. It's a really beautiful little world the women in the this book create, and it gave me a lot to think about because communities of women have been on my mind lately. I read an interesting article (no idea where, I can't track it down now for the life of me) about a woman who attended an all-girl boarding school. She wrote about how it was such a perfect place for her to develop a sense of self and identity, and to develop a voice outside of the competition between sexes. She wrote about how some of the feminist ideology of complete equality between the sexes has led us to a harmful place, and that women are actually benefited and can have more power and more voice when they are allowed to develop in communities of just women. These were very interesting ideas for me, and so I've been thinking a lot about the sphere of women, and the strength that comes when women form strong, supportive communities. Especially in this book, you can see what a wonderful thing it is for both Lily and Rosaleen to escape from the world of (abusive, racist) men and begin healing and flourishing with the help of the three calender sisters.

In today's world, I don't feel like female communities are as strong as they once were. I feel like people in general are much more isolated than they used to be, and I think this is destructive for society in general, and especially for women. I grew up with two sisters, a loving mother, and several very close friends that formed a wonderful community of female support for me, but I didn't appreciate the importance of having a support group of women in my life until I moved half way across the country with my husband and then had a baby. My mom was able to come for the first week, and there were lots of phone calls with my older sister, but I still felt like I faced a lot of motherhood very much alone. Thankfully I did have a secondary support group in my church congregation, because I don't know how I would have made it without the advice, meals, and hand-me-down baby clothes from those women. I wonder all the time about other women who aren't lucky enough to have such a community. How do they do it? Is this why women are so depressed these days?

So yes, I believe in the value of strong female communities. I believe that generations of grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters are meant to be linked together to give support and raise future generations of strong women. I believe in women gathering together to talk, share ideas, and grow intellectually. That's one of the reasons I love my book club so much (strong, intelligent, female women talking about books, what an incredible community!). And I especially believe in the need for strong female support communities in motherhood. Yes, husbands need to be involved, but mothers need other mothers. Period. So this book just contributed a lot of great insight into everything I've been thinking about female communities recently. I really like the community presented in this book and the message that in order to be strong, women need other women.

There is so much other thought-provoking content in this book. My favorite is the character of May, and her empathy towards a world of pain. There is just so much to talk about there, but I'm afraid to give away plot spoilers about what happens to her in the end. There is also plenty to be said about southern culture in general, or the symbolism of the bees and the black Madonna (which tie back to female power), but I don't think I have time right now for a thorough discussion of all of that. What I will say is that this is a beautifully written story with wonderful characters and a lot of good things to think about.

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