Despite the title and common misconception, Bee Season by Myla Goldberg is not in fact a book about (spelling) bees. That is, while the central plot follows the journey of eleven-year-old Eliza Naumann’s unexpected gift at spelling winning spelling bees, the underlying story encompasses so much more than that.
The basic premise of Goldberg’s staggeringly genius novel is that when Eliza surpasses her teachers’ and parents’ expectations by winning a school spelling bee, she begins to see that she could be more than just ordinary – a quality that has never been appreciated by her family, comprised of a religiously academic father, distant and perfectionist lawyer mother, and seemingly ‘perfect’ older brother.
Following Eliza’s journey, we uncover the fragile complexities intertwined with the weight of Jewish religion and tradition that hold together the Naumann family’s relationships. As Eliza’s father begins to see her success in spelling as a gateway to divination and a spiritual awakening, the overhaul of their usual rhythms sends the already off-kilter Naumann’s into a tailspin of spiralling madness. Amongst the breakdown of everything she knows, Eliza’s desperation and longing to be accepted is used by Goldberg to reflect the imperfect nature of modern family life.
While Bee Season may at first appear to be just yet another coming of age story, the complex multi-narrative journeys of character development which Goldberg depicts, encompasses a jarring physical and psychological struggle that entirely mirrors every day. This vivid trove of disfunction is amazingly dizzying and the book was definitely hard to put down, even though I couldn’t and still can’t decide if I actually did like it.
Definitely a book for people who like books, this novel requires a little second guessing at every step of the way. Many times, I put down this book in sheer frustration at the way it was all playing out, only to pick it back up moments later because the masterfully gripping story just could not be ignored.
Even the abrupt ending which may at first seem unsatisfactory, reflects the carefully laid out process that has built this brilliant story which Goldberg has so tirelessly crafted. Dysfunctional families are common, they are the new white picket fence. And as long as we know that each of our characters have been set on the right path, do we really need to have a spelled out happily ever after?
Goldberg’s way with words can at times certainly be intense to the point of tedium. But overall the extremely surprising interest this novel drew was above all my expectations, and makes a good book for someone who can think of nothing else they’d rather read.