There’s a lot of honey in Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees. When Lily Owens, a fourteen-year old Southern white girl, takes refuge in the home of three bee-keeping African American sisters, she discovers, within a week, how honey inundates her new daily life. “We lived for honey,” She says. “[…] We took it with every meal […] It went in our baths, our skin cream, our raspberry tea and biscuits” (84). At first, my stomach growled enviously with hungry delight. Kidd conjures an idyllic feast of honey cakes and honey tea. Honey: the surrogate for Mother’s milk, the symbolic panacea. However, after three hundred saturated pages and the ensuing stomachache, something dawned on me: these women should be really sick of honey. Honey is sticky and sappy and generally messy, but the sisters contain it in jars donning the image of the Black Madonna, Kidd’s maternal symbol of spirituality. Likewise, in this coming-of-age saga about seeking self-acceptance through universal sisterhood, Kidd neatly contains the physical and psychological trauma of 1960s South Carolina racism, unwanted pregnancy, child abuse, and suicide, by offering the all-purpose cure: religion. But if you believe that finding one’s inner Virgin Mary will allow Lily to come to terms with the death of her mother, her negligent father’s loveless maltreatment, and the ugly prejudice to be flung at her from every corner of the world as she embarks on an interracial relationship, it is because Kidd’s flowery prose fails to penetrate the visceral reality of her setting and subject matter.
Kidd compromises what could have been powerful tragedy by consistently violating the golden rule of fiction writing: show, don’t tell. Kidd’s first-person narrator, Lily, tells us what to feel before giving us the chance to dig out our own emotional and intellectual response. The voice of Lily isn’t that of a precocious fourteen-year old white girl from an abusive, single-parent household; it’s the self-conscious voice of a revisionist, analytical author with a pointed agenda. Using Lily as a vessel, Kidd expounds her didactic message on spirituality and womanhood into our buzzing brains. The other characters belong to parable, simplified and unnuanced. T-Ray, Lily’s father, is inexplicably evil, despite Kidd’s heavy-handed attempt to justify his harshness as misplaced resentment towards his dead wife’s abandonment. Lily tells us that she realizes he must have loved her mother very dearly, but we are shown nothing of T-Ray that suggests a capacity to love. Rosaleen, Lily’s fugitive black nanny and companion, inconsistently flits between seeming assertive and out-spoken to dumb and underdeveloped. And the bee-keeping sisters are like caricatures: August, the generous sage; June, jaded by love; and May, the self-less lamb, whose suicide becomes the Christ-figure sacrifice to liberate the living. This reduction of nuance diminishes the characters, as well as the strength of our connection to their lives.
When Lily finally learns the truth, that she was an unwanted pregnancy that bound her mother to T-Ray, and that her mother did indeed leave her, Lily hurls jar after jar of honey at a wall inside the honey house. The jars shatter, and jagged pieces of glass slice into her skin, while the honey sprays and oozes everywhere. It is a melodramatic, but messy moment. The neatness, the order, is temporarily undone. The faith in the Mother Mary, in female solidarity, is doubted. For a moment, the path to redemption is not clear. For a moment, Kidd conveys emotion that seems real. But it is only a moment, because Rosaleen comes in the morning, and together, she and Lily wipe away the evidence of Lily’s pain.
This book reduces abhorrent human experience to something palatable. It mocks the weight of its content with a happy ending. It simplifies what is complicated; it makes the unbearable miraculously easy. It puts its characters through fire, but allows them to emerge unscathed. Ultimately, it doesn’t have the guts to stand up and say, “Screw sisterhood. There are some things in life you just can’t stomach, even with a spoonful of honey.”