Summary: WE DON'T WANT TO TELL YOU TOO MUCH ABOUT THIS BOOK. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this: It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific. The story starts there, but the book doesn't. And it's what happens afterward that is most important. Once you have read it, you'll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds. -- Simon & Schuster
Yesterday, my Skype book club (Wired and Bound) met to discuss our March pick, LITTLE BEE by Chris Cleave. I absolutely loved this book, and I'd even go so far as to say that I think it will be one of my favorites for 2010. I know this sounds incredibly naive, but I was more than a little surprised that everyone did not share my view. But that's one of the reasons that I love book clubs so much -- they allow me to see another side (or sides) to a story.
LITTLE BEE is just an amazing story, and I can't recommend it enough. I started this novel without any idea of what it was about, and I think that's absolutely the way to approach this book. That way, I was pleasantly surprised as the story unfolded. Some of the women who were expecting more of a social justice storyline were a little disappointed. Check out the book's description above (if you didn't read it already), and tell me that doesn't just draw you in. Having said all that, it does make it a little hard to write a review without any spoilers though!
Overall, I thought this was a terrific book about the weaknesses and flaws in human nature. I found the social issues in this novel to be fascinating, and I admit that they did cause me a great deal of reflection; however, the book really was more character-driven for me. I absolutely loved Little Bee and all of her insights into her life. She was only 16 years old, but she had experienced a life-time of pain and heartache. It's hard for me to say if I thought she was portrayed realistically or consistently throughout the novel (someone had this complaint), but I was willing to accept her because I liked her so much.
Now the other characters in this story weren't quite as likable as Little Bee for me. They were very flawed and really quite selfish at times (some more so than others.) What I appreciated about this book is that these characters demonstrated so much about human nature. When Sarah and her husband are faced with a horrific choice, each makes a different decision. Both of them have to live with repercussions of this choice for the rest of their lives -- one could handle it and one couldn't. I loved how this book showed how one split second decision can forever affect your relationships and even your life.
I also think the flawed characters in this story showed a great deal about people in general. All of us are flawed to some extent (hopefully not like the characters in this story), but by introducing these characters to the reader, I think the author showed that no person is exactly what they seem. I appreciated that these characters were complex and couldn't be put in a specific bucket. At times, Sarah was selfish and even immoral, yet she also was able to make a huge sacrifice for a stranger. While I didn't really like her character, it wasn't easy to label her as a "bad" person; and I think this book really showed that nothing (or no one) is all black or white -- everything is just shades of gray.
Another thing I enjoyed about this novel was that it made me think about what I'd be willing to do for another person -- how much I'd be willing to sacrifice. I think most mothers would agree that they would lay down their lives for their own children, but I really questioned what I'd do for another child, maybe even a stranger. I'm not sure that any of us know how we'd react in such a situation, but reading LITTLE BEE did cause me to reflect on many of my own beliefs.
I think LITTLE BEE is an excellent discussion book, and I think many groups will have a wonderful time talking about the nuances of the novel. There is a reading guide available; however, you can certainly find enough to talk about without using it. Our group barely even looked at the discussion questions, and we talked for quite awhile about the book. Some of the highlights of our discussion included: do you have to like characters to enjoy a story, what LITTLE BEE meant to each of us, why or why didn't we like the book, were the characters realistic and depicted as such, what are our obligations to social causes, etc. Even though our opinions of the book were all over the place, it still made for a very interesting discussion.
Needless to say, I highly recommend LITTLE BEE. I hope you are like me and know almost nothing about the story because I guarantee this novel is best appreciated that way!