Books Magazine

Book Review: Bee Season by Myla Goldberg

By Pamelascott





PAGES: 274


YEAR: 2000



This is my Book Group read this month. I’ve had to read Bee Season early because I’m going camping for a week with my partner from the 19th. We get back five days before the Book Group meeting. I didn’t know if this would be enough time to read Bee Season so I decided to read it before heading off.

Bee Season was a finalist in the Frankfurt eBook Award 2000 for Best Fiction work converted from print to ebook.

Bee Season was adapted for the screen in 2005 (


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. But when Eliza sweeps her school and district spelling bees in quick succession, Saul takes it as a sign that she is destined for greatness. In this altered reality, Saul inducts her into his hallowed study and lavishes upon her the attention previously reserved for Aaron, who in his displacement embarks upon a lone quest for spiritual fulfilment. When Miriam’s secret life triggers a familial explosion, it is Eliza who must order the chaos… 


AT PRECISELY 11AM 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 which 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 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 to 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.


I liked the way Goldberg structures Bee Season. The novel isn’t divided into traditional chapters.  Instead, sections of varying lengths are divided by page breaks marked by a line of symbols. This gave the impression of Bee Season as one long narrative. I thought this worked really well and had a positive impact on the pace of the novel.

Bee Season becomes quite a remarkable novel from page 100 onwards. Goldberg gradually moves this seemingly simple story (girl unexpectedly wins a school contest) into something much darker as the impact of Eliza’s success causes her family to start to come apart.

Eliza’s brother, Aaron, is feeling out of sorts since Eliza’s study sessions have replaced his guitar lessons with his father, Saul. He seeks out alternative religions and becomes a devotee of Hare Krishna. He knows his father won’t approve and has to do a lot of lying and sneaking around. He eventually reveals his new calling to his father and they come to blows. Until Eliza showed a talent for competitive spelling Aaron was considered the gifted child and is more or less shoved aside by his sister’s success.

I found what happens to Eliza’s mother, Miriam, the most interesting. She is a kleptomaniac. She’s been stealing from stores for many years and starts to break into people’s houses to steal. She is almost caught several times and is attacked by a dog. She tries to end her obsession by having soulless sex with Saul. She is arrested and the true nature of her obsession is revealed and she is admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

I thought the characterisation was spot on in Bee Season. The four main players are Eliza, Aaron, Saul and Miriam. Goldberg allowed me to get to know each of them in depth. I felt every moment of Eliza’s surprise when she won the first Spelling Bee and her growing excitement as she continues to shine. Aaron’s confusion over suddenly being shoved aside and his obsession with filling the hole this creates in his life was very moving. I felt sorry for Saul who didn’t realise how cruel he was for rejecting Aaron in favour of Eliza and who had no idea what was really going on with his wife. Miriam was the best character. I found her descent into madness very touching.

I enjoyed reading about Eliza and Saul’s intense study sessions. Eliza becomes so obsessed with spelling and words it starts to affect her school-work. She is reprimanded time and again for going into a trance, for reading lists of words in secret and for not doing her school-work. I thought it was touching to see Saul spending time with her daughter and encouraging her. I liked the focus on their relationship.


I found the sections where Goldberg focused on the various Spelling Bees’ Eliza needs to attend after winning her school’s Bee quite dull actually. Despite the title Bee Season is not all about the Spelling Bees’. This forms a small part of the story. I just felt these sections went on a bit too much and found myself impatient for them to end.

I wasn’t very impressed by the first 100 pages of Bee Season. This chunk of the novel focused mainly on Eliza discovering her gift for competitive spelling after winning her class Bee. She is then dragged to various competitions by her father, which she inevitably wins. I just felt there was nothing much going on at this point to really hold my attention. I wanted to read on to find out what the outcome was of all these competitions.

I didn’t get a real sense of place from Bee Season. The novel is set in various locations in the states. Goldberg doesn’t manage to make any of the places seem real or alive. The locations were all very neutral and could have been anywhere in the world. I enjoy novels where authors create a world so real and so alive I feel like I am right there, walking the streets with the characters, seeing the sights, hearing the sounds and smelling the scents. Goldberg fails to bring the world of Bee Season alive. I was constantly aware that I was reading a work of fiction. Goldberg never quite fully pulled me into Eliza’s world.

As Eliza and Saul’s studying becomes more intense Saul introduces her to the works of Abraham Abulafia, a medieval kabbalist writer. He starts to introduce mystic elements into their studying. He believes she has the potential to lead her to shefa, the influx of the Divine. I have to admit most of what Saul tells Eliza during these sessions is lost on me. I know nothing about Mysticism. I didn’t really understand what was going on. I felt Goldberg assumed too much of her readers in this section when a bit more explanation was needed.

I thought the ending of Bee Season was very lacklustre. Eliza has been sneakily reading on of her father’s Mysticism books in secret. He believes she has the potential for mysticism that is greater than his. She has a frightening experience when she tries to achieve shefa and deliberately misspells a word at the Bee the next day. I thought this was a rubbish way to end considering all the build up with Eliza studying constantly with Saul. It was a slap in the face.


I enjoyed reading Bee Season but felt it was a very uneven novel. I loved some parts of it such as Eliza’s family coming apart at the seams. I didn’t enjoy some parts such as the actual Spelling Bees’ Eliza competes in. I felt disappointed overall. Bee Season had great potential and some parts of it are a joy to read. There are just too many elements that didn’t hold together.




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