There are no holes at all in The Secret Life of Bees. In the days of the Civil Rights movement, Lily Owens lives on a peach farm with her bad-tempered and violent father, T. Ray. Her mother, Deborah, was shot when Lily was four, and it was Lily who pulled the trigger. She’s plagued by guilt and longing, but these feelings get even more complicated as she seeks the truth about the tragedy.
One day, she goes into town with her black housekeeper Rosaleen who wants to register to vote. Rosaleen gets into a confrontation with a group of racist men, gets thrown into jail, and then gets beaten violently by the men who force their way into the little police station. Lily has the bright idea of sneaking Rosaleen out of the hospital before they can finish her off and running away to Tiburon, South Carolina, a name she’s found on the back of a photo of her mother.
In Tiburon, they are taken in by a trio of sisters, May, June and August Boatwright. August runs a thriving honey business, June is a cellist and teacher and May is a lost soul who feels every hurt and disaster as if it had happened to her.
While August teaches Lily the art of bee-keeping and Rosaleen gives May a helping hand, the two fugitives begin to heal and relax. Eventually, after much trust is built and after more tragedy occurs, Lily finds out what really happened. Through her newfound faith in Our Lady of Chains, a figurehead of a black Madonna, Lily begins to forgive both her mother and herself.
You can read a much fuller synopsis on Wikipedia. But what it won’t tell you is what I learned about writing and story-crafting from this page-turner.
The Main Character
#1 Main character has to have a BIG problem. Ex. Killed her mother accidentally, and now lives with an abusive father. Feels unwanted and unlovable. (A little like Jane Eyre, don't you think?)
#2 Main character’s problem has to tie into the BIG themes of the human experience: guilt, longing, anger, forgiveness, love.
#3 Main character has to go on a journey where other people help and hinder her solving her problem. Give her at least one “wise guide”.
#4 Main character has to find out that she is worthy of love.
Words On the Page
It’s best to start the novel with a kind of violence and have a similar surge in action and emotion close to the end.
And if you have technical stuff to weave in, do it sparingly and make it part of the development of the story. Very hard to do. Sue Monk Kidd does a masterful job of telling us just enough about bee-keeping to keep our interest, but not so much that we skip down to the next bit of dialogue.
Avoid too much explanation and preaching. That’s my one quibble with this novel. Toward the end of Act II, when August and Lily are having their big heart-to-heart, it gets a little too... motivational.
Best part of The Secret Life of Bees? The epigraphs at the head of each chapter. I started to notice that the factoids about bees were actually metaphors and foreshadowing for what the chapter would hold. I read them both before and after each chapter. So creative!
Ideas are flowing, people. I am unstuck.
Did I say this book was laugh-out-loud funny, too? It has it all: history, humour, heart.
Have you read The Secret Life of Bees? What are your favourite scenes? favourite characters? favourite quotes? How was the movie?
In order to slow down my frenetic book-eating, I'm writing reviews of the books I read to better digest them. Bon appétit!