Eliza Naumann, a seemingly unremarkable nine-year-old, expects never to fit into her gifted family: her autodidact father, Saul, absorbed in his study of Jewish mysticism; her brother, Aaron, the vessel of his father's spiritual ambitions; and her brilliant but distant lawyer-mom, Miriam.
An eccentric family falls apart at the seams in an absorbing debut that finds congruencies between the elementary school spelling-bee circuit, Jewish mysticism, Eastern religious cults and compulsive behavior. Nine-year-old Eliza Naumann feels like the dullest resident of a house full of intellectuals--her older brother, Aaron, is an overachiever; her mother, Miriam, is a lawyer; and her father, Saul, is a self-taught scholar and a cantor at the community synagogue. She surprises herself and the rest of the Naumanns when she discovers a rare aptitude for spelling, winning her school and district bees with a surreal surge of mystical insight, in which letters seem to take on a life of their own. Saul shifts his focus from Aaron to Eliza, devoting his afternoons to their practice sessions, while neglected Aaron joins the Hare Krishnas. Seduced by his own inner longings, Saul sees in Eliza the potential to fulfill the teachings of the Kabbalah scholar Abulafia, who taught that enlightenment could be reached through strategic alignments of letters and words. Eliza takes to this new discipline with a desperate, single-minded focus. At the same time, her brilliant but removed mother succumbs to a longtime secret vice and begins a descent into madness. Goldberg's insights into religious devotion, guilt, love, obsessive personalities and family dynamics ring true, and her use of spelling-as-metaphor makes a clever trope in a novel populated by literate scholars and voracious readers. Her quiet wit, balanced by an empathetic understanding of human foibles, animates every page. Although she has a tendency to overexplain, Goldberg's attentive ear makes accounts of fast-paced spelling competitions or descriptions of Miriam's struggles to resist her own compulsions riveting, and her unerring knack for telling details (as when Eliza twitches through a spelling bee in itchy tights) captures a child's perceptions with touching acuity. While coming-of-age stories all bear a certain similarity, Goldberg strikes new ground here, and displays a fresh, distinctive and totally winning voice. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 31, 1999
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Excerpt from Bee Season by Myla Goldberg
AT PRECISELY 11 A.M. every teacher in every classroom at McKinley Elementary School tells their students to stand. The enthusiasm of the collective chair scrape that follows rates somewhere between mandatory school assembly and head lice inspection. This is especially the case in Ms. Bergermeyer's fourth/fifth combination, which everybody knows is where the unimpressive fifth graders are put. Eliza Naumann certainly knows this. Since being designated three years ago as a student from whom great things should not be expected, she has grown inured to the sun-bleached posters of puppies and kittens hanging from ropes, and trying to climb ladders, and wearing hats that are too big for them above captions like "Hang in there," "If at first you don't succeed..." and "There's always time to grow." These baby animals, which have adorned the walls of every one of her classrooms from third grade onward, have watched over untold years of C students who never get picked for Student of the Week, sixth-place winners who never get a ribbon, and short, pigeon-toed girls who never get chased by boys at recess. As Eliza stands with the rest of her class, she has already prepared herself for the inevitable descent back into her chair. She has no reason to expect that the outcome of this, her first spelling bee, will differ from the outcome of any other school event seemingly designed to confirm, display, or amplify her mediocrity.
Ms. Bergermeyer's voice as she offers up spelling words matches the sodden texture of the classroom's cinder block walls. Eliza expects to be able to poke her finger into the walls, is surprised to find she cannot. She can certainly poke her way through and past her teacher's voice, finds this preferable to being dragged down by its waterlogged cadences, the voice of a middle-aged woman who has resigned herself to student rosters filled with America's future insurance salesmen, Amway dealers, and dissatisfied housewives.