Author: Myla Goldberg
Pages: 393 pages
Published: January 2002
In Myla Goldberg's outstanding first novel, a family is shaken apart by a small but unexpected shift in the prospects of one of its members. When 9-year-old Eliza Naumann, an otherwise indifferent student, takes first prize in her school spelling bee, it is as if rays of light have begun to emanate from her head. Teachers regard her with a new fondness; the studious girls begin to save a place for her at lunch. Even Eliza can sense herself changing. She had "often felt that her outsides were too dull for her insides, that deep within her there was something better than what everyone else could see."
Eliza's father, Saul, a scholar and cantor, had long since given up expecting sparks of brilliance on her part. While her brother, Aaron, had taken pride in reciting his Bar Mitzvah prayers from memory, she had typically preferred television reruns to homework or reading. This belated evidence of a miraculous talent encourages Saul to reassess his daughter. And after she wins the statewide bee, he begins tutoring her for the national competition, devoting to Eliza the hours he once spent with Aaron. His daughter flowers under his care, eventually coming to look at life "in alphabetical terms." "Consonants are the camels of language," she realizes, "proudly carrying their lingual loads."
Vowels, however, are a different species, the fish that flash and glisten in the watery depths. Vowels are elastic and inconstant, fickle and unfaithful.... Before the bee, Eliza had been a consonant, slow and unsurprising. With her bee success, she has entered vowelhood.
When Saul sees the state of transcendence that she effortlessly achieves in competition, he encourages his daughter to explore the mystical states that have eluded him--the influx of God-knowledge (shefa) described by the Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia. Although Saul has little idea what he has set in motion, "even the sound of Abulafia's name sets off music in her head. A-bu-la-fi-a. It's magic, the open sesame that unblocked the path to her father and then to language itself."
Meanwhile, stunned by his father's defection, Aaron begins a troubling religious quest. Eliza's brainy, compulsive mother is also unmoored by her success. The spelling champion's newfound gift for concentration reminds Miriam of herself as a girl, and she feels a pang for not having seen her daughter more clearly before. But Eliza's clumsy response to Miriam's overtures convinces her mother that she has no real ties to her daughter. This final disappointment precipitates her departure into a stunning secret life. The reader is left wondering what would have happened if the Naumanns' spiritual thirsts had not been set in restless motion. A poignant and exceptionally well crafted tale, Bee Season has a slow beginning but a tour-de-force conclusion. --Regina Marler