Bee Season by Myla Goldberg

Availability: Amazon, Los Gatos, San Jose, Santa Clara County

Our member Pia Chamberlain writes:

Myla Goldberg creates a portrait of a family using short scenes told through the eyes and voices of four members of a family. They provide history and context for each person, jumping back and forth in time and place without being disjointed.  For me, the power of this book lies in the true quality of each voice, especially those of the children. Goldberg captures the poignant search for parental approval of the younger child, Eliza, adeptly contrasting with her older brother Aaron’s quest for independence from the expectations of their parents. You ache for these children as they are buffeted by life, let down by their self-absorbed parents, fall and get back up. You rejoice with them for their triumphs. The parents are also fully formed human beings– flawed, certainly, but also well-meaning and clearly caught in webs of their own making.

The title refers to spelling bees, which reveal Eliza’s unexpected affinity for words and spelling. As she suddenly gains prominence in her father’s eyes through this newfound talent, her brother, the erstwhile family star and budding cantor, is left to an unfamiliar back seat within the family.

Religion surfaces in several parallel ways. For the younger child, religion and increasingly, mysticism, provide a path to parental approval. For her older brother, religious represents freedom and breaking out to find his own way. This book really made me reflect on the power of religion to shape our lives and our relationships with those we love.

Bee Season does a wonderful job of finding the holy in the mundane, as well as the mundane in the holy (sometimes hilariously so, as in the game of “sheep” the children play, where they each try to be the one to instigate the stampede to sit down at the end of the silent amidah).

Where the story goes awry for me is towards the end, when Kabbalistic mysticism takes an increasingly prominent role, straining believability. I wish that Goldberg had left that part off and found a more satisfying way to end the book. But even with this flaw, the book is so absorbing and satisfying, it’s well worth reading.