Monday, April 09, 2007

Bee Season

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

10 comments:

  1. I saw the movie based on the book, starring Richard Gere. It was good.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0387059/
    SPOILER




    If I remember rightly, Eliza deliberately mispells the last word so that she loses the national final.

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  2. Historia, I have a copy of the movie and will probably watch it soon. The spoiler you described in your comment is similar to the way that the book ended. From what you describe it is probably exact, but I'm not certain. I have a hard time picturing Richard Gere in that role as I don't see him as the "parent" type but I'm curious to see if the movie makes me any more sympathetic to the characters than the book did...sure hope so.

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  3. I was disappointed by the book, too. I was interested in the mysticism and its connection to letters and spelling, but didn't love the characters either. And I couldn't bring myself to watch the movie. Richard Gere seemed hopelessly miscast to me...

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  4. Glad to hear, Gentle Reader, that I'm not the only one who reacted that way to the book...and to Richard Gere. :-)

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  5. Sorry you didn't end up liking the book. I am one of the people who loved it. I was quite engaged by all of the characters especially Eliza. I never thought they were much of a family to begin with so their disintegration seemed natural to me, it was like watching a train wreck I knew was going to happen. it was a sad book but I thought there was some hope at the end.

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  6. I think I'll pass on this one. Right now, I don't need anything depressing.

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  7. Stefanie, I really wanted to like this book and I think that's why I was particularly disappointed by it. On the surface, it seemed to have so much going for it that I was shocked when I didn't care for it at all.

    It's hard to explain why the characters turned me off so strongly. The only one I had any sympathy for at all was Eliza. The others were very annoying.

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  8. Jenclair, this book, to me, was annoyingly depressing. That's a bad combination.

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  9. I posted the link to your review of Bee Season on LitMinds, so that others could share their thoughts. Sorry to hear this one was such a disappointment for you! I fear the movie might be similarly disappointing - I have not seen it myself, but have heard bad reviews. I found the documentary, Spellbound, about kids competing in the real national spelling bee to be a riveting movie. Maybe that would be a good remedy?

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  10. Thanks for linking up the review, Carrie. It's still strange to me how not liking this book makes me feel like the odd man out...so many people really love it. Oh well, I suppose that's why there are more books being printed every day. I still haven't watched the movie and I'm almost afraid to because of my reaction to the book and the fact that I'm not at all a fan of Richard Gere.

    I'm going to try to find Spellbound because that one sounds like fun.

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