Thursday, June 26, 2008

Book Review: The Secret Life of Bees/The Mermaid Chair

ue Monk Kidd has a way with words, evoking scenes and smells, drawing idiosyncratic characters who seem perfectly plausible. Her writing style reminds me a lot of Pat Conroy's--if she's not a native Southerner, she's one who loves it all, the people, the land, the food.

The Secret Life of Bees is her debut novel. The main character is Lily Owen, whose life has been defined by the death of her mother. Lily was four when she accidentally shot her mother who was having an argument with her husband, Lily's father. Lily's father, whom she calls T. Ray, seems indifferent to Lily, leaving her in the care of Rosaleen, a black woman he's pulled out of his peach orchard.

Lily has found a box containing a few items that belonged to her mother. One is a picture of a Black Madonna, with the words "Tiburon, South Carolina" written on the back. When Rosaleen runs into trouble on the way to register to vote (it's 1964), Lily springs her from the hospital and they run away and they head to Tiburon. On her way in to town, she finds the Black Madonna--it's a label on a jar of honey, made by a local beekeeper, August. August (who is also black) lives with her two younger sisters, June and May. She lies her way into staying with the sisters, learning about bees and "The Daughters of Mary," the religion the sisters practice revolving around the Virgin Mary. Coincidentally, Lily also receives the mothering she needs and Rosaleen finds a place for herself as well.

Of course, the idyll cannot last. Lily is a white girl living in a black household and her father has no idea where she is. The situation comes to a head and Lily learns about her mother, her father, and herself.

Unfortunately, the ending is implausible and a disappointment. (Interestingly, DD#1 had the same reaction, but phrased it much more elegantly: "Ms. Kidd is a good writer but not much of a storyteller.) I enjoyed the book in kind of a lazy, laid-back way. It's a good summer read: pleasurable, but not enthralling.

The Mermaid Chair is another novel. Also set in South Carolina. This novel has more overtly Catholic themes, involving a saints, monks, and women. Jessie has been married to Hugh for 20 years. Their daughter, Dee, is off to college. Jessie is feeling restless, but doesn't know why. She has learned to live in "the smallest space possible." Then she gets word that her mother has chopped off her right index finger. Jessie returns home to Egret Island, to her mother and her mother's best friends, Kat and Hepzibah. And to the Monastery of St. Senara, home of the Mermaid Chair.

And home to Brother Thomas, who, in his previous life, was an environmental lawyer, happily married and expecting his first child, when his wife and their unborn child were killed in a car accident. Father Sebastian, the monastery prior, suspects that Brother Thomas is running away from life. Father Dominic has written the story of the Mermaid Chair which Kat sells to tourists in her store, The Mermaid's Tale.

Because the island is small, all the characters are intertwined. Brother Thomas and Jessie feel a strong attraction, a deep connection. And the island itself--its heat, its mud, its tides--is as much a character as the people involved.

Again, though, lyrical writing but weak story, especially the ending. Both The Mermaid Chair and The Secret Life of Bees have a lot of detail about Catholic traditions, but apparently Ms. Kidd was a Southern Baptist. Before writing novels, she was known for her writing about spiritual matters, including her journey to the "sacred feminine." Her novels reflect her world view.

On the March Hare scale: 3 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks overall. Fine summer reading, not too mentally challenging, but not enough of a guilty pleasure either.

crossposted at The Mad Tea Party

No comments: