Bee Season by Myla Goldberg Book Review
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Bee Season by Myla Goldberg (Anchor, 2001, ISBN 10:038549880) was not the fluffy summer read I anticipated. The novel begins as the story of a young girl who wins a spelling bee. During the opening scenes of the story, I thought I might enjoy sharing the book with my own 10-year old daughter, who is just a year younger than the protagonist of Goldberg's story. I expected a heart-warming tale about a girl who fought against the odds and her family's expectations to become an extraordinary spelling champ. And perhaps, too, the book would explore the competitive environment of the spelling bee. I was partially correct, but wrong about the tone and temper of this chaotically unravelling tale of family dysfunction.
This novel explores the unraveling of said spelling-bee champion's seemingly cozy little family and explores images of sensuality and sexuality that I feel are not appropriate for younger readers. The central character of the story, an 11-year old girl named Eliza, becomes aware of her family's problems and her experience is a sad and painful one. Not the stuff of Harry Potter, Narnia, or even Judy Blume. This novel, though featuring some young characters, is about the adult problems that they are too immature to deal with. I think this book is written for adults or mature older teens.
Bee Season begins as a book about a young girl who unexpectedly wins the spelling bee at her school and surpasses her teachers' and parents' low expectations of her. Goldberg's descriptions of the school, its smells, and the teachers and their pupils are richly evocative of elementary schools everywhere. I felt like I was eleven years old again, and I felt the expectation and anxiety of the spelling bee contestants. Goldberg's descriptive writing style has a way of losing you in the story. Eleven is an angst-filled age that finds childhood at its final end, and Eliza is no exception in The Bee Season.
Goldberg's plot revolves around the family's reaction to Eliza as a spelling champion. Saul, Eliza's father, suddenly takes notice of Eliza's abilities and just as quickly, he stops paying attention to his favored oldest son, Aaron.
Unseated in his role as favored son, Aaron tries to find his own place in the world without his family by exploring alternate religions to his own Judaism. With plenty of time alone, Aaron eventually discovers an ancient religion that deeply appeals to him, and he becomes a devotee. Aaron keeps his religious transformation a secret from his distracted father, who is completely clueless about Aaron's fabricated stories about a new friend, Charlie. Only Eliza suspects Aaron is lying, but she doesn't betray her brother's secrets. Eliza's role is that of a wunderkind, a child prodigy. She carries a lonely and heavy burden for someone so young. Loneliness and isolation, is in fact, a central theme of this novel.
Miriam, Saul's wife and Eliza and Aaron's mother, has her own secrets. She is an intensely private person who is emotionally distant. Her relationship with Saul deteriorates as Saul spends hours with Eliza preparing her for the upcoming National Bee. Little does the reader know how self-destructive and painful Mirium's behavior will become.
Bee Season is a story filled with family tensions. The marital troubles between Saul and Miriam, the blindess of both to their children's changing experiences, and the devastating effects of self-deception their inability to cope with their children's and each other's successes make the story of this troubled family more realistic and compelling.
On the surface, this is a story about a dysfunctional family reacting to the stress of the national spelling bee. That is what I expected when I picked the book up. But what I did not expect to find was a book that examines the power of language through the mystical study of the Kabbalah, an ancient judaic practice. Goldberg's short and simple summer novel turns out to be a more sophisticated tale than the surface of the story belies, staying true to its Kabbalistic theme.
Bee Season, the Movie
Bee Season was adapted into a movie by the same name starring Juliette Binoche as Miriam and Richard Greer as Saul. This movie was released in 2005. The movie was applauded for its stunning cinematography.
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