This is the last of my “This Never Happened” reads. After I review this one, my conscience will be clear and I will be all caught up. Though I saved this book for last, I actually read it first – before I even went on vacation – so I don’t even have a good excuse for not reviewing it right away. I feel the most guilty about this one because of that, but also because “Bee Season” is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Yes, you read that right. Ever.
Title: Bee Season
Author: Myla Goldberg
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publication Date: May 15, 2001
Paperback: 285 pages
Is There a Pooka in This Book?: Only in the sense that “God” is “The All” and Pookas are part of “The All.” But if you’re asking if we’re specifically mentioned, then no, we’re not.
Every time I try to begin this sentence, I just end up sighing both happily and frustratedly. Bet you didn’t know there was such a thing as an oxymoronic sigh. I’m frustrated because I don’t feel as though I can even begin to describe what this book’s “about” or why it was so wonderful. I’m happy because it was so wonderful. Let me try.
“Bee Season” is about a family – an exceptionally quirky family. One look at the author tells you that there was no chance of the family being anything other than quirky:
If I didn’t love her book so much, I think I’d hate Myla Goldberg a little bit. She lives in Brooklyn and is just too-too hip. But damn, can she write! Her characters, unlike the image she projects in this author photo, aren’t irritatingly quirky (the striped-socks kind of quirky), but heartbreakingly quirky (the kind of quirky where they’re beautiful and alone and vulnerable).
There’s the father, Saul, who works as a cantor for the local synagogue. He once had aspirations of being both a rabbi and a mystic, but his unorthodox methods of communicating with the Divine (read: lots of hallucinogenic drugs and sex) got him kicked out of rabbinical school. His eventual disillusionment with those methods, as well as his failure to see or feel God by any traditional means, led to quashed dreams and a quiet pool of sadness, shimmering behind the outward success of his life. He’s married to a beautiful, intelligent, successful woman and they have two healthy, growing children – a boy and a girl. But one gets the disappointing feeling that he’s settled.
The woman, Miriam, is the quirkiest — and sickest — character in the novel. She’s the most successful by societal standards – she balances a career as a lawyer with a full home life — but she secretly suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which leads to kleptomania. She’s ruled by a desire to achieve “Perfectimundo” – a perfect world, a perfect state of being and completeness. She steals because she’s convinced that parts of herself are missing, shattered and scattered around the Earth. When she steals, she reasons that she’s not doing anything wrong, but making things “right,” bringing all of the pieces together where they belong. The description of the world that she creates is one of the most awe-inspiring passages I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
The children, Aaron and Eliza, are no less quirky or tragic. As the story begins, Aaron is the apple of his father’s eye. He’s a star student and Saul has passed his religious yearnings onto his son, who seems to have happily accepted them. Aaron wants to be a rabbi, has experienced God (he thinks), and spends the bulk of his time practicing guitar with his father in his study into which only he is allowed admittance. That all changes when Elly wins her first bee.
Eliza is not a star student. In fact, when the school separated the smart kids from their less-than brethren, she was placed in all lower-level classes.So, when she wins her fifth-grade class spelling bee, it comes as a shock to everyone. When she goes on to keep winning, she becomes the apple of Saul’s eye. Aaron is cast aside and he begins a period of religious experimentation, hoping to find himself and cut himself off from his father’s tallit strings. (A tallit is a prayer shawl worn by Jewish men. You see what I did there?)
Saul begins to see Eliza as the vessel for all of his hopes and dreams. Inspired by the way she waits for a word to appear to her, patiently and behind closed eyes, he teaches her about a Jewish mystic who found God through language – through exercises with words and letters. This is one of my favorite ideas about God – God as “logos,” as “The Word” who speaks the world into existence. Saul tries to pace himself during their daily lessons in his study (into which she is now the only one allowed) and not reveal too much of his plan too soon, but Eliza susses out his plan and jumps the gun, trying to ready herself for the National Bee.
You see, her family has started to come apart. All of their secret eccentricities, along with the loneliness, beauty and vulnerability they bring, have begun to come to light. She thinks that if she can win the Bee, and that if she can talk to God, that she can erase those quirks and make her family strong.
I can’t say enough good things about this book. The language is rich and gorgeous, and the plot is delicate and intricate, the characters feel close and real, their voices echoing in your head and their fingertips plucking at your heartstrings. That’s why I was completely shocked to find, when I sought out other reviews, that not everyone felt the same way about the book that I do. In fact, there were a lot of people who hated it.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how it is that everyone didn’t love what I loved so intensely. I’ve come up with a few things. First, there are a lot of people who are put off by religion. There are the people of my generation who are ardent atheists and who scoff at religion altogether. Then, there are those who are fine with religion so long as the religious ideas are in accordance with their own religious doctrine. The book doesn’t satisfy either of these types of people. It does explore religion and it doesn’t do it in a commonly-accepted way. So that might’ve been part of it. A large number of people also said that they felt the book was pretentious. That might be true. I don’t know. Pretentiousness doesn’t bother me, as long as the person being pretentious has the chops, intelligence, and emotion to back it up. Then, the two major complaints that I read were about the ending and — this was the most surprising of all — about the likability of the characters.
A lot of people were upset because they didn’t understanding the ending. They couldn’t figure out why what happened happened, and they misinterpreted what happened in a very definitive and static way. I think the author meant for the ending to be open to interpretation. She doesn’t tell you, she shows you and she lets you think for yourself. It was too ambiguous to provide any sense of closure, and a lot of people like, need, and want that closure. They want the end to be the end. This isn’t to say that the book is incomplete or that Goldberg’s going to turn it into a series. It was a stand-alone work and I think it stands sturdily on its own.
As for the likability of the characters, the outcry was all directed against Saul & Miriam. People were outraged, claiming that they were terrible parents – self-absorbed and selfish, thinking only about themselves and trying to make their children into everything they couldn’t be, ignoring Aaron & Eliza’s individuality and basic need for security. It was shouted that they were the type of people that should never have had children.
What’s my response to that? Well, to be honest, it didn’t even occur to me to judge them. I didn’t think that was my role. Were they selfish? Sure. Were they self-absorbed? Yeah, they were. Were they terrible parents? I think that’s a harder call. Miriam was sick. And Saul – Saul very clearly loved his children. When he realizes his mistakes (most importantly, ignoring Aaron), he feels real and true remorse. He tries to talk to them, to be honest with them, to be patient. Both Miriam and Saul come from broken homes – Miriam’s parents died, leaving her orphaned, and Saul’s father disowned him when he found out about his Jewish roots and made the decision to embrace them. Miriam & Saul tried to create a home that was better and warmer than the places from which they came, but it’s difficult to lead when you lack an example. So were they terrible parents? I don’t know. I’m not a mother. My first inclination was to empathize with every character. I’ve read books – and loved books – where I’ve been asked to empathize with pedophiles – and “Bee Season” made the reader far less culpable than “Lolita”! So, were they terrible people? That’s a question I can answer with a resounding “no.”
The only complaint I had was a small one in comparison. Some of Aaron’s sections, around the midpoint, dragged. But the rest of the text more than made up for it. While I’m a pretty fantastic speller, I can only wish that words appeared to me the way they appear to Eliza – out of the surf, washing up on shore, letter by letter; growing up against my very bones, appearing first along my ribcage, then separating and floating through my veins and into my brain. I’ve got a few bee trophies (and a horrible, traumatic memory of the time I spelled “snake” instead of “snack”), but spelling has never led me to God – or to Nationals.
Pooka Rating: 4.99 out of 5 Nibbles.
Oh, and as an aside, the book’s been made into a movie. Saul is played by Richard Gere, which is hardly who I pictured while reading. I think it’s because there’s a lot of emphasis placed on Saul’s manliness, virility, and hairiness. I pictured someone darker. I haven’t seen it. I’m a little bit afraid to.