Friday, March 6, 2009

Bee Season

by Myla Goldberg
First sentence: "At precisely 11 a.m. every teacher in every classroom at McKinley Elementary School tells their students to stand."

Eliza Neumann is an average student. She has above-average parents: Saul, the synagogue's cantor leader and who spends his time studying Jewish mystics, and Miriam, who is a bit on the obsessive-compulsive side but is a brilliant lawyer. And her older brother, Aaron, is a star student, too. So, no one expects Eliza to begin spelling words perfectly, seemingly out of the blue. Her consecutive wins at the bees -- first school, then district, then state -- throw her family's already precarious balance completely off. Her parents' marriage, which was already a bit tense, goes into a headlong downward spiral. Her father decides to throw himself into helping Eliza study, mostly because he believes she can become the next Jewish mystic, in the process alienating his son. And Aaron, unable to cope with Eliza's genius, decides that what he really needs is to connect with God and so goes about checking out different churches, eventually settling on the Hari Krishnas.

The only real thing that I liked about the book was the spelling bees. I liked how Eliza approached them, and Goldberg's description of the intensity surrounding them. Unfortunately, that ended halfway through the book, and the rest of the book, though, I could have done without. The family was troubled, of course; what Jewish family isn't? (Argh.) Miriam was completely quacked (what's with mothers who can't manage to be decent people?), and Saul was no better, being concerned only with his children's success rather than what they want. His show-down with Aaron over the Krishnas was, at the very least, embarassing, but probably more along the lines of stupid parenting. It was very frustrating to see two smart people being completely incompetent. And the sex... well, let's just say that it was enough to make me uncomfortable. Which was probably the author's intention. But, still. I felt like it qualified as overshare.

And in the end, I wanted the time I read the book back. Please.

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