on March 13, 2001
Bee Season is the story of the unraveling of a family which was clinging together by the barest of threads, with two parents so engrossed in their own obsessions that they listened but never heard. We have Aaron, the older brother, who is consistently bullied at school and feels at peace only at the Jewish temple where his father, Saul, is the cantor. Saul has created a world for himself in his tiny study full of books from which her emerges only to cook dinner for the family as his wife, Miriam, is not the domestic type. Miriam, meanwhile, is haunted by her quest to reach Perfectimundo, a state in which everything is perfectly clean, sterile, and in its correct place. And then there's Eliza, who is tracked as a lower-achieving student in second grade and manages to float through life on a cload of after-school sitcoms, achieiving nothing out of the ordinary until she rockets to the national spelling bee in fifth grade. What follows is the family's gradual collapse, helped along by Aaron's decision to find God in the Hare Krishna faith, Miriam's schitzophrenic kleptomania, and Saul's newlyfound belief that his daughter can be trained to become a direct link to God based on her talents with letters. Eliza, thrilled at the prospect of her father finally noticed her, plays along until the bitter end when everything snaps. Bee Season is gutwrenching and by its end, makes the reader feel like he might have descended into the darkness that this family inhabits. Goldberg is a gifted writer, and I look forward to reading more of her work, if perhaps of a more optimistic slant.
on June 21, 2000
I'm amazed that earlier reviewers see this novel as a picture of contemporary Jewish life. Not only is this a story of the complete disintegration of a family and its members, it also contains strong implications regarding the often manipulative seduction of spirituality and it's power over the young and vulnerable.
While I found certain aspects of the religious aura she created interesting, the primary obstacle to my complete enjoyment of this novel was Goldberg's attribution of very adult emotions and reasoning to her younger characters. While their naivete is apparent, they are somehow able to focus completely on their goals, forsaking all else. Eliza's epiphany toward the end of the book was, for me, a bit over the rainbow; I was never quite able to accept the extreme mystical qualities attributed to the process of spelling, especially for a ten year old (even one that would do anything to please her father). I can accept, however, that the startling realization that your home life is dissolving could cause a child to seek comfort in less concrete or earthly matters. Somehow, this story seems to set out to accomplish one thing--the description of family and personal turmoil--and becomes awash in a sea of religious imagery and mystical concentration.
It was the story of Eliza's mother, Miriam, that most captured my imagination. Her seething instabiity and its kaleidescopic manifestations were truly breathtaking. However, it seems unlikely that such an overwhelming degree of unsteadiness should go undetected within the confines of a long marriage.
The power of language and Myla Goldberg's obvious talents in its portrayal are apparent; the primary plot focuses on the allure of the written word! She is clearly a gifted writer with a startilngly promising future.
on August 29, 2000
Most reviews of Bee Season I've come across focus on Eliza's transformation from being an average,unexceptional child to a gifted spelling bee contestant. The truth is, that's only the set-up of the book, presenting the potential reader with the misconception that it is a tale of family set against the backdrop of the spelling bee circuit. This couldn't be farther from the truth.
Bee Season is about the quest for spritual fullfillment and understanding. It's about an overzealous father incapable of connecting with his children outside of the bounds of religion, a daughter who is delighted to finally get her father's interest, a son in the midst of a spiritual crisis, and a mother with a secret life.
A knowledge or interest in Jewish mysticism is essential to readers approaching this book, as is an interest in spiritual matters in general. I found it enjoyable, but not exactly as advertised. There's a fabulous climax where everything comes together, although the denoument leaves much unresolved.
on January 14, 2002
This is the best book I have read in a long time. Goldberg writes beautifully and the story is woven together like a rich, colorful tapestry.
"Bee Season" is the story of a family that disintegrates as each member seeks individual spiritual enlightenment.
The Naumann family is based on a tissue of lies and misconceptions, but manages to maintain a precarious balance until the "average" daughter upsets the equilibrium by unexpectedly winning a spelling bee.
Although the daughter, Eliza, is the catalyst that sets drastic changes in motion, they are really the result of the complete self absorption and lack of awareness exhibited by her father Saul. He is a man with a mission, and his single-minded efforts to find divine connection blind him to the chaos all around him. He somehow fails to notice that his wife Miriam is mentally ill and his son Aaron is a total misfit falling under the influence of a cult. He also seems to have conveniently forgotten that Jewish mysticism is serious business. He irresponsibly introduces it to a child--despite long-standing prohibitions against its exploration by any other than mentally stable, educated adults.
Saul is completely clueless about the forces in motion in his own household. As disaster follows disaster, he clings to the belief that Eliza will win the national spelling championship, and this will be a sign from God that he is on the right path. Eliza chooses to make sure that her father cannot continue to hide from the truth. If he can ever figure out what happened, he might indeed achieve enlightenment.
First let me say, I wanted to hate this book. I mean really hate it. When I opened to the first page, I wanted it to be trite and boring and mundane. Why? Because somewhere in print I read that Goldberg didn't really want to write this - she wanted to get into something much more esoteric but was told she wouldn't get any readers unless she started more mainstream. I was insulted, and (being passive-aggressive) decided to read it (but I'm not buying it!) further spurred on by the NY Times reviews calling it "fervidly intelligent" and "particularly original and intriguing." Then the Seattle Times called it a "near perfect novel." C'mon now, how good could it be when she really didn't want to write it to begin with? Well, it could make me give it four stars in spite of myself. Goldberg is a careful writer, writing sentences in which each word has important implications - literal and symbolic. Words seem calculated - but not forced - and don't distract you from the intensity of the character's dysfunctional dynamics that uncoil themselves throughout the novel. The family's reluctant interdependency upon each other, both worldly and emotional, real and imagined, is incredibly insightful but never obvious. Goldberg is not insulting with her insights - the reader can find them provided that one is looking, and without having to be a literary scholar. As the famly spins on its out of control trajectory towards the end of the book, I found myself second guessing their actions - wanting to try and predict the unpredictable - to make order out of the madness. Perhaps this was the author's intention all along? If so, she has led me down the path and I have followed blindly. And been pleased with what I've found at the end. Since returning the library's copy, I have purchased my own copy to lend to others - this is a book worth getting others into. I have not enjoyed a book as much as this one in a long time. My only disappointment is that I can't imagine where Goldberg will go from here.
on November 14, 2003
My mother left me this book after a recent visit, saying I might like it. I was puzzled, because I thought it was a Scholastic Books-type coming-of-age story of a young girl, with slightly more adult themes to explain its popularity. It does have a coming-of-age story, but that doesn't even begin to describe it.
Eliza is a young girl who has been shunted off to the slow learners section of grade school. Memorable passages describe her bewildered transition from promising 2nd-grader to forgotten 5th-grader. (There is another book compressed inside this one about children whose potential is ignored or forgotten.) When she wins the school spelling bee, her disbelief is matched by her family's. From this point it is easy to imagine the rest of the book that could have followed, but this book is not an inspirational homily for teenagers. Although the spelling bee sections are given prominence and are very well written, Bee Season is really about something both bigger and darker.
It meticulously, excruciatingly charts the mental state of a family that is fragmenting. All four members of the Naumann family have unique, secret obsessions that slowly redirect their outward behavior. There is an even-handed symmetry between their viewpoints that in lesser hands would simply be schematic, but here is a great source of power. In switching at regular intervals from one view to another, the similarities between Aaron's search for God, Saul's Kabbalism, Miriam's "collecting" and Eliza's spelling become clear: all are shown to be seductive but ultimately inhuman pursuits. The absolute certainty each family member holds is revealed to be deceptive, with eventual destructive consequences for all. If you have ever been forced to confront someone's mental illness, you will appreciate what happens.
This is a much, much better book than some of the tepid and dismissive reviews here would indicate. It's not meant to be a page-turner; the events are allowed the time they require to unfold. The characters are not completely lovable; they are realistically portrayed, sometimes painfully. Whether or not you find the mystical passages believable (as I did), everything else is given without sentimentality and with heartbreaking sympathy. As befits a book about language, the writing is both streamlined and muscular, but it is the sense of balance between the characters that is most astonishing. We should all be so just.
on June 26, 2000
Let me start off by saying that I loved this book from start to finish. It's The Chosen for adults. It's hard to believe that this is the author's first novel. You will be totally drawn in by Eliza, the 9 year old who does not get tagged for the gifted and talented class like her older brother who does everything well, or so it seems. On the surface, this is a normal, intellectual Jewish family, but underneath, there are problems all around. I think the comparison with American Beauty is apt -- all is not well in suburbia. What makes this a literary work rather than just another good novel is the profound Kabbalistic tie in of the Tikkan Olan -- a kind of divine light. Once the broken pieces are put together, a certain level of mystic knowledge and proximity to God takes place. Some critics didn't like the side stories: Miriam, the mother and her mental breakdown, the brother and his seduction into the Hare Krishas, but what makes this book so absorbing is that all the characters are striving to find enlightenment in whatever way they can. While Eliza follows the Kabbalistic trail of spelling and letter combinations and permutations, her brother seeks reality in the Krishas, and Miriam shoplifts in a manical way (I don't want to give away that plot). It's a terrific book -- lyrical, touching and well conceived. As an aside, it's nice to see a book when the father is the one who holds together a broken family. He's a very sympathetic and well-drawn character. So far, it's one of my favorite books of the year.
on July 3, 2000
I came reading this book not knowing what to expect. The best thing about the novel, I came to find was in the increasing complexity of the novel. The novel is not merely about the Spelling Bee, nor is it a heartwarming tale of Eliza overcoming her problems to become a good speller. This book is about a dysfunctional family whose deep rooted problems, of which there are many, are explained during the course of the novel. I credit the author, Myla Goldberg, with a job very well done in her first attempt at a mainstream novel. I found the book dragging at times, and some aspects of the characters, especially Miriam, Eliza's mother, to be very contrived. But the book can be set down at anytime; there are no chapters in this novel, only segments that are no more than three pages in length, all in the present tense. I feel that this novel will be a stepping stone to better books for Mrs. Goldberg. Her lyrical- almost poetic- prose is in impressive style and attention to detail is articulate, especially for a new writer. I hope to see more novels from her in the future. I highly reccomend this novel, but, once again, do not expect a heartwarming tale, and only tackle this novel if you wish to feel the angst of its eccentric characters.
I found Bee Season to be a wonderful, entrancing novel--part coming of age novel, part disfunctional family novel, and part something all its own. It should be obvious to readers of the reviews on these pages, though, that this novel is not for everyone and it's not for everyone because of that part of it that is something all its own. Eliza Naumann is a shy, unremarkable girl, treated as nothing special even by her own family. It isn't until she wins the area spelling bee and is off to the nationals that she finally gets some attention from her cerebral father. Her mother is another story, another plot line. From the moment Miriam, Eliza's mother, is introduced, there is something simply not right with her one of Goldberg's threads in this novel explores what's inside Miriam's head. We also meet Eliza's brother Aaron, who, because Eliza has displaced him from the child of honor in the household, goes off on a spiritual quest of his own. Things are not what they seem in this novel, there is much brewing in this seemingly simple suburban family. Saul, the father sees Eliza's spelling talent as a sign of her inner mysticism, but he focuses so on her, that the other members of his family, who sorely, sorely need him are neglected to the point of breakdown. There are no easy resolutions to their problems and the novel does not end with loose ends tied up neatly, the problems continue. The mysticism element of the novel may strike some as odd. Perhaps these factors are why many have disliked the novel. If you feel up to it, though, read this novel. Bee Season is a marvelous novel written by a talented young writer. Myla Goldberg's writing is beautiful, her characters are real. Yes, the story does take some interesting twists, nothing predictable, but still nothing that comes "out of the blue." Enjoy
I see this unusual novel as an account of four people's disparate efforts to impose order on a chaotic world. We see Eliza with her spelling (putting words and, by implication, objects, in order); Saul with his concerted attempts to make sense of the world through kabbalah; Aaron's finding meaning in Eastern religion that he did not find in his synagogue; and Miriam, of course, with her forays that ultimately amount to a very specific type of madness.
"As long as [an object] stays in this house, the world will remain slightly misaligned," Goldberg portrays Miriam as thinking. So from Miriam's perspective, the object must be removed from the house so that the world can become aligned. The kaleidoscope that Miriam so fondly recalls from childhood, an image that recurs very late in the novel, is again a symbol of order and alignment; it is by definition fully symmetrical.
Goldberg seems to be telling us that only by recognizing the oddness, strangeness, and misalignment of the world, and working within that framework, can we gain mental health and full maturity as human beings.
I do think, however, that the final scene is a bit abrupt and that the novel would have been entirely successful had Goldberg prepared the reader for it more adequately.