Why Little Bee Bugged the Crap out of Me

10th March 2011

How do I really want to review this book? I really want to just say, “This book made me mad!” and stomp off like a five-year-old. However, I’m old enough to have a five-year-old (though I don’t) and certainly old enough not to act like one. Maybe.

You see, right off the bat, I was annoyed when I flipped to the back cover to be greeted by this blurb:

We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this: This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face…. Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it.

Um, yeah, I will because I don’t want them to start a book at midnight and read frantically until 3 a.m. only to wind up staring off into the darkness going, “Whaaat just happened there?” Plus, I’m not a five-year-old, so why is the blurb person talking to me like I am? Weird.

Anyway, about all that stuff the blurb writer doesn’t want you to blab? Why not? It totally does not work for the plot for the *BIG STUFF* to be revealed bit by bit along the way. In fact, it makes the *BIG STUFF* seem almost anticlimactic because I knew something *BAD* and *BIG* had happened in the past and that it made all this other big, bad stuff happen. Confused yet? Let me tell you what I can without spoiling it for you:

The book opens in an immigration detention center in the UK. Little Bee has been here since she was 14, and she is now 16. She has measured her moments by enumerating ways to kill herself quickly if “the men” come for her again. (See, bad stuff a-happenin). She is released because another detainee Yevette trades favors with a semi-high-ranking official. Little Bee has figured out her only chance for survival is to speak the Queen’s English, which she does quite well, with the exception of figures of speech. She has one goal: she has a driver’s license for a man she met on a beach in Nigeria where she was running from “the men.” Little Bee arrives at the doorstep of Andrew and Sarah (Andrew’s wife), and the two women must reconfigure their lives in the aftermath of what happened on that beach. Sarah is dealing with *big stuff* and cheating on her husband with a jerkface, and Little Bee just comes into all this like a wisened Samantha Jones off Sex and the City, taking everything into stride.

Cleave lets each woman take turns narrating, which is interesting because Little Bee is pretty much the only character I cared about. As is the case with many non-native English speakers, Little Bee’s insights are full of wisdom and clarity. She thinks she and the Queen have much in common because of the sometimes-violent history of the UK:

The Queen smiles sometimes but if you look at her eyes in the portrait on the back of the five-pound note, you will see she is carrying a heavy cargo too. The Queen and me, we are ready for the worst. In public you will see both of us smiling and sometimes even laughing, but if you were a man who looked at us in a certain way we would both of us make sure we were dead before you could lay a single finger on our bodies. Me and the Queen of England, we would not give you the satisfaction.

She describes the life of a detainee:

Maybe the new color of my life was gray. Two years in a gray detention center, and now I was an illegal immigrant…. That means, you live in a gray area.

She would, in fact, design

a national flag for all the world’s refugees, then the flag I would make would be gray. You would not need any particular fabric to make it…A worn-out old brassiere , for example, that has been washed so many times it has become gray.

Isn’t that a fantastic description? So while parts of this book were incredibly beautiful, I felt manipulated, and I think Cleave is a good enough writer that manipulation just isn’t necessary. If it’s not a mystery, then I want to know the pertinent details up front, and not just because it would make reviewing it a heck of a lot easier. Even in the beginning of the book, I kept flipping back to make sure I hadn’t missed anything because Cleave kept referencing the *big stuff*. I’m all about subtle, and I’m a good reader. DON’T make me doubt my context clue skills.

Additionally, though I am aware that the privileged are often the only ones in the position to help, I think the ‘privileged woman saving the less-privileged, usually woman of color’ spiel is getting old. [See my notes on this sort of thing in other reviews.]

A. I don’t buy it. Sarah is not the most selfless character, and I never saw the sort of evolution of character it requires to give up the luxury of a first-world country and your child’s safety (oh yeah, she has a son) to traipse across a dangerous country as a semi-journalistic reporter.

B. What she does is incredibly reckless and puts Little Bee in a much more difficult position than before.

C. Where does she get all this money from? I am really bored with these characters who always, always have enough money to bribe people or pay for totally-unexpected trips for extended periods of time.

So Little Bee. I expected a lot once I was sucked in, and, in my opinion, it didn’t deliver. On the other hand, I will definitely keep an eye out for Cleave because though his planning/organizational/whatthehellareyoudoingtome sense of storytelling was not up my alley, his writing style definitely was.

jenn aka the picky girl

Read this one: immediately / asap / when you get a chance / if you’re bored

P.S. Isn’t this cover beautiful? The illustration is by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, and I think it is simply incredible. Check out his other covers – really great work. I have seen a lot of hype about this book since I’ve been blogging, though I don’t recall specific reviews or whether they were positive or negative. Often, when a book is that talked about, I tend to steer clear. I don’t really know why, other than I am ornery.

P.P.S. Want to hear some other reviews?

The Book Lady’s Blog

Maw Books Blog

Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?

Beth Fish Reads

Man of La Book

  • Wow, what a great post title, thoroughly enjoyed reading this review! And one I don’t have to feel guilty about not being in The Pile ๐Ÿ˜€

    • pickygirl

      Thanks! And while my goal isn’t to discourage (plenty of people loved it), I would have liked more info going in, as I said. Glad you dropped by and commented.

  • Honestly I ignored the whole back of the book description completely. I read this book on the plane home from BEA and that’s about what it was good for. It was interesting to read, but now I barely remember anything about it. It didn’t make much of an impression on me, positively or negatively.

    • pickygirl

      Sometimes I ignore it, but I vaguely remembered not getting any info in reviews and thought: what is it about?

  • your tweet was so funny I had to read your post — we just discussed this book last week at our mother/daughter book club and although we loved many things about it, there was a lot of discussion about leaps of logic and plot things that didn’t make sense. “If they had so damn much money why didn’t they get therapy?” Anyway– but the fifteen year olds really liked it.

    • pickygirl

      That’s actually great to know they enjoyed it. There’s a lot to love there; I just didn’t enjoy it overall. I’m so glad you popped over and commented. A mother/daughter bookclub sounds so cool!

  • THAT BLURB! Grrr! I listened to this on audiobook, so I didn’t see that blurb initially, but when I saw it in the bookstore I rolled my eyes so hard.

    I didn’t like this book when I finished it, but as time passed and I had more time to reflect on it, I’ve grown to really, really hate it. lol

    • pickygirl

      You are too funny! Can I ask why you “really, really hate it”? I’m just curious if it is for similar reasons or something else entirely?

    • That is EXACTLY how I feel! I was meh when I finished it and then I started hating it.

      • pickygirl

        It’s weird because it has certainly stuck with me….just not in a good way.

  • I was laughing through the first part of the book. I’ve mostly read good reviews about this book and don’t remember coming across anyone who was too bothered by the blurb. Me? The only reason I still haven’t picked this book to read was because I don’t like the blurb and I’m not fascinated with all that mystery around the book. I may pick this one sometime, maybe.. but I’m not going to rush into it. Most of the reviews I’ve read so far kind of make me feel that this book is really not for me.

    • pickygirl

      Never has a blurb irked me as much as this one. It’s the small things, really.

  • I like quirkiness but that blurb is a little too precious for me. Though the excerpts you included are wonderful, I hate being manipulated. I also get annoyed by people who conveniently and mysteriously “always have enough money to bribe people or pay for totally-unexpected trips for extended periods of time”!

    • pickygirl

      Thank you! It happens more and more in fiction. Come down to my lower-middle-class world and get real. Grr. And you’re right – too precious, particularly considering the subject matter.

  • Karen

    I was also frustrated by the seemingly inexhaustible resources of Sarah, who was portrayed as, at most, upper middle class. Also, wouldn’t the whole point of *the* episode be to prove to this first-world woman that her first-worldness won’t necessarily protect her (or those around her)? Bringing Little Bee back to that beach — to say nothing of doing so with her son in tow — was unconscionable and certainly showed that she had learned nothing. Such arrogance! It also bothered me that she and her husband got their guide/guard killed through their first-world sense of entitlement, and we didn’t seem to shed a tear (except perhaps for a few moments after the immediate occurrence) for him. I could go on, but as I think you can tell already, *Little Bee* also bugged the crap out of me ; )

    • pickygirl

      Karen – Welcome and thank you thank you. You put it well: it was unconscionable. I was appalled.

      And right again – first-worldness (even though a bit ludicrous) will not protect her, and I wish that were highlighted instead of glorified.

  • Oh no, I just recommended this to my mother (in Dutch translation) bcause I had heard so many bloggers rave about it. So, I guess when I next visit my parents I might pick this up, just to see how I feel, but I am not very enthousiastic. The thing is, that cover is so beautiful that I want to read it despite the warnings?

    • pickygirl

      Iris! I would never try to dissuade anyone from reading it (and I love the cover too). I simply had issues with it. As I mention, I stayed up all night reading it. That’s what was so strange- to be that enthralled and still not like it. If you read it, please come back and tell me your thoughts.

  • You have perfectly summed up everything I felt about this book, but for one detail. I had heard of the book, but hadn’t read any reviews. The blurb actually intrigued me, and I couldn’t wait to read it. Needless to say, I was disappointed. Through every page, I felt like I was lost, trying desperately to figure out what I had missed. By the time the reader actually finds out what this “big thing” was that had intertwined these women’s lives, it’s just anticlimactic. I had to read that part a couple of times just to make sure that I was properly understanding the sequence of events.

    Like you, I stayed up all night reading it. I wish I had slept instead.

    • pickygirl

      Jennae! Thanks so much for reading my blog. I love yours so much, so this is a thrill. You know, had I not been so irritated by the book, I may have felt similarly about the blurb. In retrospect, it did make me wonder, so perhaps I was projecting my annoyance. Whatever the case, yes to the rest of your comment.

      I am actually reading a book right now that does the “withholding info” thing well, but that’s another review.

  • Amy

    Interesting review. I’m more scared than ever to read the book myself now ๐Ÿ˜‰ Especially with my whole weekly Nigerian lit project.

    • pickygirl

      Yeah – this was a “didn’t work for me” book, but others really really enjoyed it. If you read it, I would love to read what you have to say about it.

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  • Jenn I’m a bit curious and scared because I don’t want to feel irritated when it comes to book.Sigh…Sad to say we cannot avoid it just like what happen to you..

    Noella Barth

    • Well, others really enjoyed this book, so don’t just take my word for it. You might really enjoy it. It just touched a nerve for me.

  • Triciaglynn

    I was annoyed throughout the entire book and could not wait for the ending. I put the book down several times as I found it tedious and contrived and way too cute at times, especially when Sarah would say “you think?” Many parts were actually nauseating and it was only curiosity of what happens to Bee that made me forge ahead. The batman crap went on for the whole book – ridiculous.
    Little Bee was a waste of my time and frankly I don’t get all the praise and accolades.

    • Yes – Bee, I cared about. The others? Not so much. It’s a shame really because the premise is interesting.