For this week I decided to tackle a young adult novel by Scotland native Lisa O'Donnell. Just from the description on the book jacket, I knew The Death of Bees would be slightly different from the young adult novels I am used to reading. And as usual, finding it at Half Price Books pushed it up my reading list and onto this blog.
The Situation: On the very first page the reader is told that it is Marnie's 15th birthday, and she has just buried her parents, Izzy and Gene, in the backyard of their house. And she isn't exactly heartbroken about it. Neither is her little sister, Nelly. Izzy and Gene weren't the world's best parents by any stretch of the imagination. If they hadn't abandoned their children by going off on one of their drug fueled adventures, then they're at home completely wasted and absolutely no good for caring for their daughters. Also, there are hints that Gene may have sexually molested both girls, but that isn't stated explicitly. And now, after Gene has been found smothered by a pillow in the master bedroom, Izzy hangs herself in the tool shed, and the girls are more alone than they have ever been. Marnie is more or less used to taking care of herself, but Nelly has always been socially awkward, and this situation isn't making things any better.
The Problem: Not surprisingly, having dead parents buried in the backyard is only going to lead to more problems for Marnie and Nelly. With Izzy and Gene dead, and Marnie not being considered an adult for another year or so, this leaves both girls under the threat of being put into foster care. In fact, there may be an even worse fate than foster care, and that is being taken in by their seemingly repentant grandfather who may be the reason their mother was so messed up in the first place. Fortunately, for the time being, their next door neighbor Lennie has taken them on without an explanation, and without wanting or needing anything in return. He is just happy to have someone to cook for and take care of. But with his own spotty past, if anyone were to report that he has been caring for two young girls while their parents are unaccounted for, he would receive even more unwanted attention than he already gets. With Marnie constantly getting in trouble in school and hanging out with drug dealers and their suppliers, and Nelly's inability to act normal, hiding two dead bodies in the backyard is going to a be even more difficult than the girls initially thought. They just need to make it until Marnie is considered an adult, but that may be too much to ask for.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that follows the Disney method of storytelling in that the parents are immediately killed off very early in the story. But the similarities with heartwarming Disney stories ends there. This story is about two kids who are put in an awful situation that someone else created, and now they are trying to work their way out of it as best they can. But they're kids, so they are really bad at it...like really bad. Both Marnie and Nelly think they know everything and know what is best, but of course they don't. And being sisters, they often don't see eye to eye on anything, but arguing with each other certainly isn't going to solve things. It's a story that explores what happens when seriously messed up kids are forced to act like the adults their parents weren't. Also, Marnie and Nelly's relatives are proof that sometimes kids aren't better off with blood relatives, and Lennie is able to provide them with stability they had never known. The narration also switches between Marnie, Nellie, and Lennie, so sometimes the reader will get the same story from all three, but none of them agree on exactly what happened and what the result will be. Oftentimes Nelly believes everything will be just fine, while Marnie is convinced everything is about to come crashing down. Ah, sisters.
My Verdict: I wish I could have liked this book more. It is an excellent premise that starts off with parents being buried in the backyard, and the reader isn't even quite sure yet what killed one of them. But maybe it was the incredibly bleak outlook of the whole story, or the constant state of hopelessness that everyone seemed to be in, but I just found myself kind of wanting it to all end. Also, it felt like O'Donnell wrote herself into a corner with all of the craziness that was going on and had a hard time wrapping it all up for the ending. It felt rushed as everything was cleaned up just a little too easily, leaving some loose ends that never get resolved. And the whole making the hypocritical Christian the bad guy has been done before, and done better. It isn't a terrible book, and I am glad to have read it, but I don't see myself rushing to read anything else of O'Donnell's either.
Favorite Moment: When Lennie punishes Marnie for hurting Nelly and he actually follows through on it, even though he isn't their father, or even their legal guardian.
Favorite Character: This is one of those books where no one is all that great and everyone has issues. Even so, I think my favorite is Vlado, the drug supplier that ends up taking care of the girls in his own way.
Recommended Reading: If you enjoy reading about teenagers put into impossible situations with terrible parents, then Ruta Sepetys' Out of the Easy may be the book for you. Sepetys writes about the daughter of a prostitute who wants nothing more than to escape New Orleans and start a new life in a college up north. It is another story of a teenager caught in an awful situation that someone else created.