Reread #4 Wrapup: Bee Season

by david

(New to this? I’m rereading my favorite books that I hardly remember.) Also, it should go without saying that these posts are rife with spoilers. I’m not even going to try to conceal something.

I CLEARLY HAVE ADVANCED BRAIN DAMAGE. There is no other explanation for my failure to remember so much that is so central to my good feelings for Bee Season. Let’s start with the basics: I wasn’t wrong about a single thing I wrote in the post setting this up. However, if I’m to be judged by omission rather than by what I got right, I failed, and failed woefully. What I forgot about Aaron, Eliza’s brother, is enough to write thousands of words on, and that would look like a pamphlet compared to what I’d have to write about Miriam, the mother. As I read, the details started to come back, and my wife inadvertently blurted out a major Miriam spoiler one night. I was reading the book while brushing my teeth, and she walked in, saw the book, and said, “Have you gotten to the part where the wife turns out to not be a lawyer at all, but spends her days…”. And I shrieked, and she stopped. That moment was particularly humbling, because my wife remembered without ever having read the book. So, I think it’s time to officially declare that I don’t remember anything about any book I read more than, let’s say two years ago. But I can sing you the commercial jingle for any toy manufactured between 1986 and 1992. You don’t get the brain you choose, it turns out.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about Bee Season. It doesn’t just hold up, it’s better with the passage of time. Having aged a decade, had kids, and put more ideas into my brain, I’m sure I got more from it and put more into it that I did before. But, there, that’s about me again. Two things most surprised me about Bee Season this time through: First, Myla Goldberg’s immense gift not just for writing complete characters, but for making the relationships within the family so much bigger than the words on the page. There’s this scene on page 90, where Eliza sits down beside her brother, who doesn’t want to talk, and she asks him why he no longer plays guitar, an activity that sat at the center of his relationship with their father. She knows the attention she’s getting from Saul comes at Aaron’s expense. By asking, she’s bringing up a topic they’re both fixated on, but won’t raise directly. This moment, in most hands would be either thin or melodramatic, but Goldberg’s dialogue is perfect, and the final two short sentences of the scene set both children on the course they’re bound on for the rest of the novel. It’s so calmly momentous. The other thing that surprised me was her ability to render each character fully and then through later revelation and development, undercut and strengthen those characters again and again. Often I find that when a novelist is withholding details about a character there’s a screaming void there, some action or behavior that doesn’t fit, but Goldberg’s characters seemed to arrive complete, which made later revelations much like learning something about an old friend that was always there under the surface. I had a question about Miriam’s finances from very early on, but it wasn’t a question about her character. Goldberg does this all so well, it seems easy. It’s not at all.

There’s so much to love in this book. Because it’s right there in the title, and gets main focus, the spelling bee/Kabbalah training between Saul and Eliza is what I remembered best, but Aaron’s story is equally compelling. This poor family. On finishing the novel, I can say without hesitation that it deserves to remain on my list of favorites. Maybe I’ll start hand selling it again.