Myla Goldberg's Bee Season is one of the major disappointments of the 2007 reading year for me. Having heard and read passionately glowing reports of the novel, I expected it to be one of my favorite books this year (the book was published in 2000) instead of one of my regrets. Part of my reaction stems from the way the book began as a powerfully inspirational tale of how a young girl finally gained the respect of the other members of her intellectually gifted family but ended as a depressing account of that same family's crushing disintegration. But Goldberg's biggest failure is not the fact that she wrote such a depressing book. Her ultimate failure is that she was unable to make me care in the least what happened to any of the four members of the Naumann family. Not once did I lose consciousness of the fact that I was reading about fictional characters on the page of a novel.
Eliza Naumann, average student and youngest child in a family of scholars has resigned herself to a life of mediocrity among her cantor father, lawyer mother and high-achieving brother. But when she unexpectedly wins her school spelling bee and the district bee that follows, her father believes that his prayers concerning his daughter have finally been answered. Saul Baumann, at this point, decides to direct his coaching efforts exclusively toward his daughter and begins to neglect the son toward whom all of his previous efforts had been directed. As Eliza successfully works her way all the way up to the National Spelling Bee competition, the four members of the family begin to pull apart from each other until there is simply no family to be found.
Eliza's success has had consequences for everyone. Her mother, realizing that she will never be close to her daughter, succumbs to the devils that have haunted her for most of her life. Her brother, so suddenly neglected by his father and religious mentor, begins a disastrous search for what is lacking in his spiritual life. Saul Baumann, by choosing to work so exclusively with only one of his children, comes close to losing them both. And sadly, Eliza finds that her success and fame is not worth the destruction that it causes.
The bottom line for me is that, while I don't have to have a plot from a Disney movie in order to appreciate a book, I do have to have believable characters. These did not work for me.
Rated at: 2.5