A Comparison with Huckleberry Finn
There are some startling resemblances to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain) in The Secret Life of Bees. These involve characters, plot, themes, and symbolism.
Lily and Rosalie are in many ways female counterparts to Huck and Jim. Huck is a complete orphan, and Lily might as well be, considering her relationship with T. Ray. Of course, both Jim and Rosalie are orphaned, too. The ages and races of the characters have the same relationships as well, with Lily being a young, Caucasian protagonist set off against African-American Rosalie, an adult, and Huck being a youthful, Caucasian protagonist set off against older, African-American Jim, a runaway slave. And while Rosalie is not a slave, she is a servant in Lily's household, in the rural South, likely to have been treated very much like a slave in many ways, as is shown by the treatment afforded her by others in the town.
In both stories, the characters are setting off for freedom of a sort, literal freedom in Jim's case, and freedom from "civilization" in Huck's. Lily is running away to some degree to gain her freedom from T. Ray, while Rosalie's flight is triggered by her attempt to exercise her freedom to vote.
The characters in each story are on journeys, for the younger, Huck and Lily, coming of age journeys, for the older characters, a form of self-actualization.
In both stories, water is an important symbol. The Mississippi River is the most prominent water symbol in Huckleberry Finn, symbolizing, at the very least, a journey to freedom. In The Secret Life of Bees, the symbolism is more subtle. But in many scenes, water figures prominently, for example, the crossing of the creek, the scene in which Lily and June come to some understanding of one another while getting drenched, and of course, May's death in the water.
All in all, it is worth noting how many similarities there are between the two stories, published almost exactly one hundred years apart, both exploring the same themes and ideas, with males and females grappling with the same issues.