I picked up The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd for free the other day and just finished reading it last night. Inspired by the many book and movie review blogs I lurk about I decided to imitate them and attempt a review of the book (admittedly nowhere near the quality of such sites as Sci-Fi Catholic and B-movie Catechism, but it's an attempt).
Typical Review: A moving first novel...Lily is an authentic and winning character and her story is compellingly told. (USA Today) Inspiring. Sue Monk Kidd is a direct literary descendant of Carson McCullers. (The Baltimore Sun)
The mean Amazon rating is 4 stars; while the mode is 5 stars.
Sue Monk Kidd's ravishing debut novel has stolen the hearts of reviewers and readers alike with its strong, assured voice. 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 "stand-in mother," Rosaleen, insults three of the town's fiercest racists, Lily decides they should both escape to Tiburon, South Carolina--a town that holds the secret to her mother's past. There they are taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters who introduce Lily to a mesmerizing world of bees, honey, and the Black Madonna who presides over their household. This is a remarkable story about divine female power and the transforming power of love--a story that women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.
When I started the book I quickly shifted gears to reading a preteen level book from the middle school library. It had a shaky beginning with a lot of flashbacks which are difficult to follow. Throughout most of the book I was entertained by the simple story, although quite frequently worrying about things that the author hadn't even considered.
For example at one point Zach (a young black kid) and Lily go driving into town. I was worried they would get stopped, interrogated and Lily would be discovered, no one seems to bat an eye. At one point they hug and Zach looks around to make sure no one saw, but no one is even paying attention. Now I was born 20 years too late, but wouldn't he have been watched like a hawk for having a white girl in the car with him?
Furthermore, the characters often did things that didn't make sense. In the beginning Rosaleen is asked where she's going by some known racists and tells them she is going to vote. They tease her calling her basically a fat black and she proceeds pour tobacco spit onto their shoes. I found myself wondering if a black woman with any sense at all would have done this, did she want to get beaten up?
Over and over I kept feeling like something big was about to happen and nothing did, and when something did happen, it was usually tidied up neat and pretty (sometimes even off the scene) with a deus ex machina.
When I finished the book I felt liked I'd just finished an "ok" middle school level book, the kind my niece used to bring home from the library, but the more I think about it the more I dislike it. Even with the middle school books I felt empathy for the characters. In this book, despite the several occasions where tears were meant to be, I never cried, or even felt inclined to. At one point a main character commits suicide and I found myself moralizing over the fate of her soul instead of feeling the pain of the others. Now it could be I was just cold hearted yesterday, but that would be odd since I've been depressed and crying at the drop of a hat lately.
Also, it wasn't particularly funny or enlightening which would make up for a lack of character involvement. I chuckled twice at the beginning and found myself miffed when it was done. As far as enlightening goes, there is no real redemption at the end. Although Lily stops lying, it was in her best interest to do so at that time. You find out she's looking back from the point of view of a month later and wonder how she grew up so fast since it's written like an adult looking back at events in her childhood.
The religion of the three sisters plays a big roll in the book, but even there it falls short of something worth reading. Their religion is first introduced as a "flavor of Catholicism", but it shifts from saying rosaries in front of a statue of Mary, to worship of the statue as a divine mother, to finalize in a form of self-worship for women.
[August said, ]"Our Lady is not some magical being out there somewhere, like a fairy godmother. She's not the statue in the parlor. She's something inside of you...
"You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside...
"You don't have to put your hand on Mary's heart to get strength and consolation and rescue, and all the other things we need to get through life," she said. "You can place it right here on your own heart. Your own heart...
"When you're unsure of yourself...when you start pulling back into doubt and small living, she's the one inside saying, 'Get up from there and live like the glorious girl you are.' She's the power inside you, you understand?
"And whatever it is that keeps widening your heart, that's Mary, too, not only the power inside you but the love. And when you get down to it, Lily, that's the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love - but to persist in love."
I wanted to give a little bit of research on why this was wrong, where they fell short, but realized that my ability to do apologetics research has suffered lately. The best I've found is this from the Catechism:
God is infinitely greater than all his works: "You have set your glory above the heavens." Indeed, God's "greatness is unsearchable". But because he is the free and sovereign Creator, the first cause of all that exists, God is present to his creatures' inmost being: "In him we live and move and have our being." In the words of St. Augustine, God is "higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self". (CCC 300)
Although God is inside us, He is not contained by us. To reject His transcendence reduces God into an extension of ourselves. Ultimately this religion of self-worship leads to despair, since, no matter how hard we try to believe that we are gods, in the end we fall short of that ideal. Our failings and sins weigh us down and in the end we are unable to find that strength inside ourselves. Eventually the god inside Lilly will fail and she'll need something outside herself to keep going. Hopefully then she'll learn the Truth before she falls into despair.
Quality: Low (improbably events & weak storytelling)
Theology: Low (demotes God to a "divine mother inside us")