Monday, March 11, 2013

The Death of Bees, by Lisa O'Donnell

HarperCollins, 2013
309 pp

Let me start my brief discussion of this novel by saying that I predict that it will be a runaway bestseller once word gets out about it. The Death of Bees is very easy to read, it moves very quickly, and it will capture the attention of people who are fascinated with stories about severely dysfunctional families or stories with young, teenaged characters at the center of it all.  From what I can tell by perusing the star ratings of this book, it is probably going to sell like hotcakes. 

Personally, I had heard of this novel and had planned to give it a pass, but it arrived from Powell's (along with an incredibly tasty jar of honey) in my latest Indiespensable shipment so I thought, well, okay, I might as well give it a go. I was admittedly mildly intrigued by the opening lines:
 "Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard.

Neither of them were beloved."
Hmmm, I thought, perhaps it's something along the lines of McEwan's Cement Garden.  As it turns out, it isn't.   After a few chapters, I came to the conclusion that this is definitely not my cup of tea and I  thought about putting it away unfinished, something I rarely do.  I'd even reached for another book before thinking that all of these 5-star ratings must mean something, so I picked it up again and read through to the end. It still wasn't my cup of tea, but overall, not because of the author, although I do think she missed the mark in a couple of places. The plain and simple truth is that I just don't like these kinds of novels -- especially ones geared (imho) more toward a mature young-adult audience or toward those who like women's fiction.  While it may be trendy, it's not my thing.

Set in Glasgow, the story is told through alternating points of view.  The two sisters at the heart of this story, Marnie and Nelly, take turns; Lennie, the next-door neighbor who takes the girls in when he thinks their parents have just gone off and left them also has a voice.  The story begins with the deaths of the parents and Marnie's realization that if the authorities discover their absence, the girls could be taken into care, so they construct a story that the parents have gone away and left them alone, but that they're planning to come back. After all, when Marnie turns 16, she can legally care for her sister and herself.   Meanwhile, they bury the bodies in the back yard, planting lavender over the graves.   Lennie has his own issues -- he was caught with a young male prostitute and now lives by himself; he's a very lonely old man who feels better being needed by someone. Both sisters deal with their childhoods and their parents' deaths in different ways; Lennie doesn't know the truth and tries to understand what it is the girls aren't telling him.  There are several twists to this story that gets darker as time goes on and as more players are introduced.  Thematically, the story looks at families and at grief; it also examines what it means to truly care about someone. 

To be fair, aside from the target audience thing, I felt that the story moved along very quickly,  never getting boring and the author throws in some dark humor at times. Some of the families other than Marnie and Nelly's also threw a light on different types of dysfunctionality -- for example, people who have well-paying jobs and live in nice houses who neglect their kids, a woman in a state of post-prison  religious mania who turns her back on her wayward son so he has to sleep on the streets, and a daughter who turned to her father in a serious time of need but was refused because the father had a reputation to maintain --  all make their appearances here.  Bringing all of this out was something the author did well.  But I discovered two major issues that I would consider problematic writing wise: first, I saw the big twist toward the end coming a mile off (sadly, I can't reveal what it is) and second, the end was just too pat, too sweet, too nice, too happy, whatever you want to call it. I get that she's offering a small glimpse of hope, but come on! That was just too way out there. 

As I said at the beginning, this book is probably going to sell very well.  I personally know people who LOVED this book -- all of them  YA and women's fiction readers so if that's where your reading interests lie, this is probably  the perfect novel.  I've seen it categorized in reviews as "depressing," which it could be, I suppose. I just wasn't that into it so I didn't really have that sort of connection to the story felt by most readers who lavished the book with heaps-o-praise.  Oh well!

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