Bee Season by Myla Goldberg
Another selection that I read for a bookclub held yesterday, Bee Season was definitely an interesting book for me. We first meet Eliza Naumman, a young Jewish girl adrift in a sea of mediocrity, her teachers and family having written her off years before for failing to get into her school’s Talented and Gifted program.
When she unexpectedly wins the school spelling bee, it sets off a chain of events that could never have been foreseen. Making it all the way to the National Bee in the first few pages of the book, so much more is in store than spelling bees for Eliza and her family. Her father, Saul, has put all his energy and dreams on Eliza’s older brother, Aaron, in the hopes that one day Aaron will become the rabbi Saul dreamed of being but failed to achieve. Aaron is a teenage outcast when away from his Jewish community, with no close friends at school, and having grown up as the constant target of bullies and harrassment. Mirriam, their mother, is a distant career woman hiding a dark and confusing secret.
After Eliza wins the first bee, things are throw out of whack, with Saul turning his entire focus on her in order to help her win the National Bee, and thereby leaving Aaron lost without his constant guidance and approval. This leads Aaron to question everything about his life, including and most especially, the Jewish faith he has always followed dilligently. Mirriam begans to lose her grip on the world around her, falling further and further into delusions. And poor Eliza, all she has ever wanted was for someone to love her, and be her guide. Saul pushes her into a strange world of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalistic word/spelling/letter meditations in order for Eliza to win the National Bee, and to eventually reach transcendence and hopefully communion with God.
Throughout this entire book, I was on the edge of my seat, desperate to reach through the pages and shake these characters to wake them from their selfish daydreams and enclosed worlds. All they needed was to talk with each other! It’s spelled C-O-M-M-U-N-I-C-A-T-I-O-N, people!! There are so many near-connections and close encounters, where they almost reach each other, that it is maddening. This a family who has become stuck in the rituals and motions of what a family should look like, but without the caring and attention that a real family has.
The parents are not parents at all. Mirriam has never felt connected to her children, and as the book progresses, we see that more and more, as she pulls further and further into herself, and leaves everything to Saul. Saul is a man obsessed with his own failures, everything he does with his children is based around an agenda. Aaron is the golden son, the one who will become the pillar in the Jewish community, the aspiring rabbi. But this dream is Saul’s and it was really interesting to see Aaron pull away from his roots as he begins to question his own convictions and assumptions, searching for his own path to God through Eastern Religion.
Interesting side note: I felt the portrayal of what was once viewed as a cult, the “Hare Krishna” church, if you will, was very well done. It’s made clear that these people are merely offering Aaron information, and not trying to convert or preach to him. (or Brainwash him…)
And Eliza is, as I said, a lost little girl. She never truly understands what is happening around her, all she can focus on are the words and letters that have begun to change her life and the lives of her family.
The characters are rarely, if ever, likable. They seem to live in a vaccum, the only people they come into contact with being each other. It’s the ultimate example of complete disconnection from each other, and often from reality itself. The story, I feel, isn’t necessarily believable, and again, as someone who is not religious, I can’t truly fathom the need and the desperate hunger to find a connection or a pathway to God.
Also, thinking back on the descriptions and timelines of the book, I think it’s pretty confusing at points. Discussing it with the bookclub, I realized that the author was portraying Eliza and Aaron’s relationship in a very confusing timeline, with Eliza as a little girl, but Aaron being older than he should be if their age difference remains the same throughout the book. Things are referred to as years ago, but if correct, Eliza would have been too young, generally, to even remember or understand what was going on or what games she was playing with her brother.
By the end of the book, I was exhausted. The characters seemed to just drift further apart, instead of learning from their mistakes and getting closer together. When a cataclysmic event happens, it seems to splinter the family completely, whereas most families would pull together and marshall their reserves. I was tired of rooting for them, and tired of reading about people who thought they were intelligent, but continued to make the same mistakes and missteps over and over. They lacked growth and development (perhaps except for Eliza).
And the ending? Well, hell, it’s a doozy, is all I’m saying.
I didn’t like the book, although I found it fascinating, for the glimpses it gives into Jewish faith, mental illness, and a little bit about spelling bees. I wouldn’t personally recommend it, but obviously everyone has their own tastes.