The Secret Life of Bees is Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, following several acclaimed works of nonfiction. The novel follows Lily Owens in the summer of 1964 in South Carolina. On a quest to discover her mother's past, Lily travels to a honey farm in Tiburon, South Carolina. There she discovers the Boatwrights in a fabulous world of beekeeping, spirituality, and obsession with honey. Lily discovers more about herself, her mother, and society than she could have imagined before she began her journey. She learns about the power of females not only as individuals but also as they work collectively.
In an interview with La Vie en Rose, Kidd confesses that very little of Lily's existence relates to her own childhood. She insists that her father is the exact opposite of T. Ray, and she adds that while Lily merely wanted to go to charm school, Kidd actually did go. Kidd did, however, grow up in the South in the 1960s, giving her a sense of the paradoxes of the region. While Kidd insists that none of the characters in the novel is based on any specific person in her life, she acknowledges that at times people she knew speak through her characters.
The novel began as a short story that Kidd wrote in 1993. Several years later, she began a three-year process of converting the short story into a novel. To inspire her creativity, Kidd put together a collage of photos that she thought would relate to the plot of the novel. Though she was not exactly sure how she would connect all of the photos, she included a pink house, three African American women, and a wailing wall.
In order to write the book, Kidd also spent extensive time in a honey house and observing beekeepers. Kidd told BookPage that these experiences were necessary to create the sensory stimulation in the novel. "I could never have gotten that from a book. The fear and delight of all that and the sounds of it," she says. Kidd developed the figure of Our Lady of Chains from a statue that she discovered on a trip to a South Carolina monastery. She told BookPage that she was captivated by the story of a masthead of a woman that resurfaces from the depths of the sea.
A New York Times bestseller, The Secret Life of Bees earned tremendous acclaim from a variety of publications and endorsements from numerous novelists. A British publication, Woman and Home, discussed the book as a "superb rites of passage novel." Susan Isaacs, author of Long Time No See, called The Secret Life of Bees "compulsively readable." The book was awarded the Literature to Life Award, and an excerpt from the novel was included in Best American Short Stories.
The book also has been developed into a film adaptation released in October 2008. The film stars Dakota Fanning as Lily Owens, Queen Latifah as August Boatwright, and Alicia Keys as June Boatwright.