Bee Season by Myla Goldberg

Synopsis Bee Season by Myla Goldberg: Eliza Naumann, a seemingly unremarkable nine-year-old, expects never to fit into her gifted family: her autodidact father, Saul, absorbed in his study of Jewish mysticism; her brother, Aaron, the vessel of his father's spiritual ambitions; and her brilliant but distant lawyer-mom, Miriam. But when Eliza sweeps her school and district spelling bees in quick succession, Saul takes it as a sign that she is destined for greatness. In this altered reality, Saul inducts her into his hallowed study and lavishes upon her the attention previously reserved for Aaron, who in his displacement embarks upon a lone quest for spiritual fulfillment. When Miriam's secret life triggers a familial explosion, it is Eliza who must order the chaos.

I decided to read this because: One of my contacts on Bookmooch had a 5-for-3 promo. I had my 3 books already, then this title caught my eye because it’s A New York Times Notable Book. And the funky picture of the author on the back gave me the vibe that it must be an interesting book (pixie cute and striped tights!).

First line: At precisely 11 a.m. every teacher in every classroom at McKinley Elementary School tells their students to stand.

The book in one sentence: Mixing mysticism, mental illness, and the bizarre subculture of spelling bees, Bee Season takes a poignant look at what happens to a family when things don’t go as planned. [Via]

I'd recommend it to: Those interested in mental illness. Or simply anyone waiting to read a very good story.

Ok bits

The ambience of the story itself – sad yet sensitive. It starts out innocently enough but as the characters slowly unfolded, I realized this wasn’t an ordinary book. I was actually expecting something about bees (literally, similar to the Secret Life of Bees) but the story centers around a spelling bee.

The Naumann family, with each member looking for meaning in life in their own way and excelling what they do: Saul, the father, in his Jewish texts; Miriam, through her profession as a lawyer; and Aaron, who seeks God, outside of his Jewish roots. They are the perfect family with only the 10-year-old daughter Eliza, or Elly, the “ordinary” person in the family and forever seeking approval from her family but failing in her mediocrity. She eventually surprises her whole “gifted” family by winning the school-wide spelling bee, making it to the district spelling bees.

But things aren’t as perfect as they seem. As Elly gets caught up in her success, things seems to unravel in the family. Eliza discovers the difficulties and stresses of keeping her father’s approval, opening herself up to a new form of religiosity in the written word. Her brother, no longer the golden boy, turns to another religion and she is his unwilling confidant. But most fascinating is its very nuanced look into Elly’s mother’s madness and eventually, how the family disintegrates and its members descend into their own forms of fanaticism.

The writing is simple and accessible yet rich. The story moves fast and it is easy to empathize with the characters. The ending … I totally commiserate with Elly, and admire her for her act of courage.

I didn’t like ... 

Nothing, nothing, nothing. I loved this book.

Author factoids: Myla Goldberg leads a double life – a musician as well as a writer, she plays the banjo and accordion and sings for her band The Walking Hellos. She has had a glass eye since 1998 due to a hunting accident. [Via]

Verdict: Sad, compelling and explores interesting themes of madness, fanaticism and family dynamics. Definitely worth reading.

Random quotes:
Miriam realizes she is a broken vessel, pieces of her scattered everywhere. She has been finding those pieces, in their many forms, and bringing them together so she can be whole again.
As much as I admire and value intellectualism and experimentation, I’ve discovered that unless a book has a throbbing heart as well as a sexy brain, I feel like the story is a specimen in a sealed glass jar and not a living, breathing creature I want to take by the hand and talk to for hours on end.

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall