This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.
“Queen Bee” by Dorothea Benton Frank is filled with quirky characters, magical bees, and at the center, a woman who is trying to figure out where she belongs. Holly McNee Jensen has always felt like the odd woman out. Her mother, lovingly — and not-so-lovingly — referred to as Queen Bee, adores Holly’s older sister Leslie. Holly always seems to do things wrong.
Now, Leslie is married and living elsewhere with her wealthy husband, and Holly is living at home taking care of her mother. Her mother treats Holly as something between a nurse and personal chef, and there is no gratitude for anything that Holly does.
Holly is a nurturer. She nurtures her mother. She tenderly cares for her bees and talks to them about her life. While some people have their dog or cat to confide in, Holly has her bees. And as things come to a boil in this story, she comes to need those bees and the comfort she gets from sharing her troubles with them. And the bees? They come through for Holly.
Holly’s neighbor Carin died almost a year ago, leaving her husband Archie and their two rambunctious boys to fend for themselves. Holly has been acting as their caretaker and, yes, nurturing the boys. She loves them and babysits for them and feeds them. She also has begun to have a hankering for Archie, a professor who may have a PhD from an Ivy League school but doesn’t have much common sense in real life. When the boys tell her that their dad has a girlfriend, Holly is discouraged. After meeting the girlfriend, Sharon, Holly is furious.
Sharon is not the motherly type, and Archie, far from realizing this character flaw, has absolutely no idea. In between caring for the QB (Queen Bee), her actual bees, and the neighbor’s boys, Holly decides to get a job. She’s been on the waiting list to teach at the local elementary school, but in the meantime, she wants something that will get her out of the house. Publix hires her to work in their bakery department, and Holly finds she enjoys decorating cakes.
Life gets interesting. Leslie arrives home with shocking — at first — news about her marriage and her husband. Holly’s bees seem to listen to the problems she shares with them and, eerily, perhaps even magically, act on them. In fact, the book could also be titled “Life as Seen Through the Eyes of Bees,” since almost every chapter begins with an interesting tidbit about bees and how they relate to life. For example, “There’s only one queen bee in each hive,” Holly tells her young friends, “because somebody has to be in charge.”
And when Holly explains to the boys that, “One of the things that amazes me about honey bees is how they will all take care of each other. They’re selfless. They feed the queen, they hunt and forage for each other, they take turns guarding the hive. Amazing,” one responds, “They’re like you, Miss Holly.”
The fact is that bees work for the common good and are not selfish. They literally give up their lives for the good of the hive. And while Holly is a nurturer, she learns that sometimes, you need to stand up for yourself. But the most important lesson she learns is to accept that she’s pretty impressive just the way she is.
Along the way, the reader also gets to see how Leslie adapts to her new reality with her cross-dressing husband. The biggest surprise is how Holly’s mother, the Queen Bee, changes when she gets involved in her son-in-law’s new career as a drag queen, and whom she meets along the way.
There are changes aplenty for this group of three women from Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina. Frank’s story is sweet and, at times, magical. It’s certainly a perfect beach read, and it will jump-start anyone’s summer with its descriptions of fragrant summer afternoons with bees lazily visiting flower after flower and wide, blue ocean views.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, William Morrow, for review purposes.