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Bee Season: A Novel Paperback – May 15, 2001

3.6 out of 5 stars 365 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In Myla Goldberg's outstanding first novel, a family is shaken apart by a small but unexpected shift in the prospects of one of its members. When 9-year-old Eliza Naumann, an otherwise indifferent student, takes first prize in her school spelling bee, it is as if rays of light have begun to emanate from her head. Teachers regard her with a new fondness; the studious girls begin to save a place for her at lunch. Even Eliza can sense herself changing. She had "often felt that her outsides were too dull for her insides, that deep within her there was something better than what everyone else could see."

Eliza's father, Saul, a scholar and cantor, had long since given up expecting sparks of brilliance on her part. While her brother, Aaron, had taken pride in reciting his Bar Mitzvah prayers from memory, she had typically preferred television reruns to homework or reading. This belated evidence of a miraculous talent encourages Saul to reassess his daughter. And after she wins the statewide bee, he begins tutoring her for the national competition, devoting to Eliza the hours he once spent with Aaron. His daughter flowers under his care, eventually coming to look at life "in alphabetical terms." "Consonants are the camels of language," she realizes, "proudly carrying their lingual loads."

Vowels, however, are a different species, the fish that flash and glisten in the watery depths. Vowels are elastic and inconstant, fickle and unfaithful.... Before the bee, Eliza had been a consonant, slow and unsurprising. With her bee success, she has entered vowelhood.
When Saul sees the state of transcendence that she effortlessly achieves in competition, he encourages his daughter to explore the mystical states that have eluded him--the influx of God-knowledge (shefa) described by the Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia. Although Saul has little idea what he has set in motion, "even the sound of Abulafia's name sets off music in her head. A-bu-la-fi-a. It's magic, the open sesame that unblocked the path to her father and then to language itself."

Meanwhile, stunned by his father's defection, Aaron begins a troubling religious quest. Eliza's brainy, compulsive mother is also unmoored by her success. The spelling champion's newfound gift for concentration reminds Miriam of herself as a girl, and she feels a pang for not having seen her daughter more clearly before. But Eliza's clumsy response to Miriam's overtures convinces her mother that she has no real ties to her daughter. This final disappointment precipitates her departure into a stunning secret life. The reader is left wondering what would have happened if the Naumanns' spiritual thirsts had not been set in restless motion. A poignant and exceptionally well crafted tale, Bee Season has a slow beginning but a tour-de-force conclusion. --Regina Marler --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

An eccentric family falls apart at the seams in an absorbing debut that finds congruencies between the elementary school spelling-bee circuit, Jewish mysticism, Eastern religious cults and compulsive behavior. Nine-year-old Eliza Naumann feels like the dullest resident of a house full of intellectuals--her older brother, Aaron, is an overachiever; her mother, Miriam, is a lawyer; and her father, Saul, is a self-taught scholar and a cantor at the community synagogue. She surprises herself and the rest of the Naumanns when she discovers a rare aptitude for spelling, winning her school and district bees with a surreal surge of mystical insight, in which letters seem to take on a life of their own. Saul shifts his focus from Aaron to Eliza, devoting his afternoons to their practice sessions, while neglected Aaron joins the Hare Krishnas. Seduced by his own inner longings, Saul sees in Eliza the potential to fulfill the teachings of the Kabbalah scholar Abulafia, who taught that enlightenment could be reached through strategic alignments of letters and words. Eliza takes to this new discipline with a desperate, single-minded focus. At the same time, her brilliant but removed mother succumbs to a longtime secret vice and begins a descent into madness. Goldberg's insights into religious devotion, guilt, love, obsessive personalities and family dynamics ring true, and her use of spelling-as-metaphor makes a clever trope in a novel populated by literate scholars and voracious readers. Her quiet wit, balanced by an empathetic understanding of human foibles, animates every page. Although she has a tendency to overexplain, Goldberg's attentive ear makes accounts of fast-paced spelling competitions or descriptions of Miriam's struggles to resist her own compulsions riveting, and her unerring knack for telling details (as when Eliza twitches through a spelling bee in itchy tights) captures a child's perceptions with touching acuity. While coming-of-age stories all bear a certain similarity, Goldberg strikes new ground here, and displays a fresh, distinctive and totally winning voice. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 275 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reissue edition (May 15, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385498802
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385498807
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (365 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #164,776 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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By A Customer on June 21, 2000
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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