In the mid-1960s, Lily Owens is 14 years old, and lives with her unforgiving and remote father on a peach farm in South Carolina. Lily has grown up with the knowledge that when she was 4 years old, she accidentally killed her mother. Lonely and sad, her only friend is the black maid Rosaleen.
When racial tension explodes into ugly violence, Lily and Rosaleen run away, and end up at a home in Tiburon, where they stay with three sisters, August, June and May, who keep bees, and make and sell honey. As Lily grows to enjoy her new life, she learns not only about keeping bees, but also lessons about life, and her own past.
I really enjoyed this book, although there were some aspects of it which could have put me off. The story is narrated by Lily, and the author’s ability to speak in a child’s voice is astounding and entirely convincing. Lily is honest – sometimes painfully so, and to her own detriment – but she is a very believable character. I also thought that Rosaleen was an excellent character, combining pride and honesty with a humorous lack of decorum that makes Lily (and sometimes me) wince.
August – the sister who is the driving force behind the honey making business – is a very likeable person, but perhaps just a little too perfect, although this is counterbalanced somewhat by her angry sister June, and her emotionally unbalanced sister May.
The book balances moments of tragedy and anger, with times of friendship and joy, and all of it was captivating reading.
However, the book does have a number of cliches running through it. The Daughters of Mary group – a set of (mainly) women who come to worship at August’s makeshift church seem very stereotypical, and I had a job distinguishing the characters in the group from each other. Also, Lily’s father T. Ray, is very one-dimensional…he’s cruel and without redemption, although a slight effort is made to explain his behaviour.
The book only really scratches the surface of racial tension and ugly bigotry that happened in the era described, but as the book is told from a naive child’s point of view, this is understandable. (This book cannot begin to compare to the child’s narrative in the excellent To Kill A Mockingbird, although I cannot help wondering whether this book was in any part inspired by that particular classic.) There was also a strong religious thread running through the book. Although I am not religious, this did not bother me, but it may bother other readers.
Despite the flaws though, this is an enjoyable and easy to read story of a young girl’s awakening, and I would certainly recommend it. I would definitely be interested in reading more by Sue Monk Kidd.
(Author’s website can be found here.)