Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

At several writers’ conferences, I’ve been told to study published books to find nuggets of writing wisdom. My husband and I watched The Secret Life of Bees on television this weekend and I was really surprised that he enjoyed it (maybe it’s because he’s a beekeeper.) But I have a feeling that the real reason that he liked it so much is because it was a great example of literary fiction. I’ve read the book several times and the movie stayed fairly true to the novel. So, I decided to glean what I could from this New York Times bestseller.

The Secret Life of Bees is about a young white girl and her black caretaker who flee their 60’s era small Southern town to stay with three black sisters who have an apiary (that’s a bee farm to those of you from the city) in the fictional town of Tiburon, South Carolina. The young girl, Lily, is desperate to learn more about her mother, especially after her abusive father tells her that her mother abandoned her. Lily helps her nanny, Rosaleen, escape after she was arrested and beaten for insulting a white man.

Opening line. I’ve always heard that you want to have a killer first line in your book. The opening line of this movie is, “I killed my mama when I was four years old.” Wow! Talk about a breath-taker. I immediately wanted to know more about the narrator and her situation. The opening line of the book is a little tamer, but it still piqued my interest.

Theme. Theme ties the book together and gives it resonance – something I’ll talk about later. In this case, each chapter of the book featured a quote from a beekeeping book that focused on the theme of the chapter. For example, the first chapter started with a quote about the queen bee and how the hive reacts when the queen is gone. That chapter tells how Lily and her father have coped – or tried to – since Lily’s mother’s death ten years ago.

Plot. Although literary fiction is considered to be character-driven – as opposed to plot-driven – it still has to have a plot. Here are a few plot points from the book (without giving too much away):

Lily is on a quest to find out more about her mother. She has two mentors, Rosaleen and August, the eldest beekeeping sister. One “inciting incident” is when Rosaleen pours tobacco juice on the bigoted white man’s shoes and she is beaten. The “door of no return” is when they escape from the hospital where Rosaleen is being treated under guard. At that point they can’t return to their town because T. Ray (Lily’s father) is becoming increasingly abusive and Rosaleen could be lynched if she returns to jail.

The sisters, August, June and May, seem to live in their own special world. But Lily and Rosaleen’s entrance brings the outside world inside with all it racism and hatred. August is the steadfast one, taking all the trouble in stride, but June resents Lily’s presence. May is the special one who feels all the troubles of the world down to her soul. The trials affect each one differently, and the climax contains plot twists that I definitely didn’t see coming.

Resonance. Resonance has been explained as the thing that makes you go, “ah” at the end of a book. As I mentioned earlier, it could be a recurring theme, a twist, or a satisfying ending. This book has a wonderfully satisfying ending. Let’s just say that the heroine finds the object of her quest.

So, what do you think? Did it have something to offer those of us who are aspiring authors?