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3 Books like The Secret Life of Bees: Family life in Southern U.S.

There is a sub-genre of fiction, mostly written by women, which is set in the American South and features strong-minded women, often black, but not always. Their stories are set against a backdrop of racism, patriarchy, or both. ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ is one such, but if you are looking for books similar to ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, then I am going to suggest that you try ‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’, ‘The Help’, and ‘Gone With the Wind’.

Stories, Secrets and Southern Women

The Secret Life of Bees is a multi-layered novel. Part love story, part family (or friendship) saga and part murder mystery it is also a subtle comment about the relationships between white and black communities. Despite this, it isn’t a complicated read. If you enjoyed it and want another book like ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, I have some ideas for you to mull over.

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‘The Help’ (Kathryn Stockett, 2009)

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Race is right back at the heart of this book set in 1960s Mississippi. Skeeter is a young woman just back from college and keen to forge her own path as a writer. Her mother wants her to get married, and is very dismissive when Skeeter asks what happened to their maid Constantine.

Determined to resolve the mystery of Constantine’s disappearance, Skeeter turns to the maids of her friends for answers and in doing so discovers the reality of life for black servants in the American South.

This leads to her decision to write the truth of their lives. And so the book also revolves around Aibileen and Minnie, and we read first hand their account of their lives.

But Skeeter is risking ailienation from her community at the very least – the stories the maids share open a window on to the lives of the white community and it is not flattering. What they are doing could in fact prove to be very dangerous.

Stockett has managed to produce a book that has some truly funny laugh out loud moments, but also makes you think.

Similarity Match: 80%
A book where the women take centre stage. Race is the over-riding issue, but once again the story line revolves around female friendships.

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‘Gone With The Wind’ (Margaret Mitchell, 1936)

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Scarlett O’Hara is the archetypal strong Southern woman. Her strength of character is a force of nature, but with it she is selfish, manipulative, and often very unpleasant.

Set against the backdrop of the civil war, ‘Gone With The Wind’ tells a story of survival. Scarlett is a young woman much sought after by the men of the region, whose life revolves around parties and social engagements. All this collapses when war breaks out.

Widowed early on in the conflict, Scarlett escapes her restricted life by visiting relations in Atlanta, but then flees as the fighting presses in. Together with her cousin Melanie, she retreats to her childhood home only to find it slowly decaying. If it, and they, are to survive, Scarlett must show a true strength of character.

‘Gone With the Wind’ is also a love story, but not a romantic one. It is about attraction, and falling in love with the wrong person, and sometimes love just not being enough.

Mitchell only wrote one book. But what a book. It is a sweeping epic which picks you up and sets you right down in the middle of a chaotic time, in the company of some very strong women. It’s not a gentle, easy read, but it is gripping. And at the heart, again, we have relationships between women and the impact these have, this time, on their very survival.

Similarity Match: 60%
Deep South, race relations, strong women – it’s all here. This is set in a much earlier era of history, and the experiences of the white rather than black community are foremost. But it is beautifully written and takes you back to this key time in American history.

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‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ (Rebecca Wells, 1996)

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When this book was published, it received critical and popular acclaim, and was made into a movie. However, it is not one that everyone just knows – it seems to have fallen out of the public eye a bit.

Sidda, a play director, and her mother Vivi have never had an easy relationship but when Sidda’s words are misquoted in a review of her new play, the relationship looks to be damaged beyond repair.

Sidda is also struggling with her engagement, and when she postpones the wedding she escapes from it all in a lakeside cabin. Here, she receives a scrapbook.

Entitled ‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’, it tells the story of Vivi and her four best friends growing up.

Through it, Sidda begins to uncover the story of her mother’s past and how it shaped the person she’s become.

Like ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, this is about uncovering secrets within a family. Sidda learns of some the events that shaped her mother, and so indirectly shaped her own childhood and personality.

It is also about strong female personalities, and ultimately it is about learning to see your parents as people in their own right rather than just your parents.

Similarity match: 40%
A story about families, their secrets, and the importance of enduring friendships.

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Division or Acceptance?

America’s Deep South features strongly in literature because it has been such a divided society: divided by race and divided by gender. Placing strong characters into such a setting and writing about their responses provides a good driver for a plot which can then be embellished in many ways, as these books show.

If you enjoyed ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, which books would you recommend to follow?

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