Friday, January 19, 2007

And this is why I haven't finished War and Peace

Yesterday, I planned to go into the city to play around for a few hours. The sunny morning weather deteriorated to a drizzling rain by the time I actually left, so I ended up visiting that new mall. I was inexplicably drawn to "The American Bookstore" which sells all English books. I had a few authors and titles in mind, actually, that I hoped to find. They didn't have any of the books I wanted, but who walks out of a bookstore empty-handed?

I didn't need any books.

I have many unread books on my shelves.

I'm currently reading at least five books.

I repeat: I didn't need any books, and I don't have time to read another book right now.

So I can't explain why this happened, except that it did. I bought Bee Season by Myla Goldberg. I have never heard of the author (this was her first novel), nor can I recall reading any recommendations for it. It just sounded compelling, so I bought it and started to read it while hanging out at the mall. I finished it before I went to bed. Yes, the whole thing. Yes, I read fast, although I confess to skimming some bits at the beginning.

And what was it all about? One of the most dysfunctional families you would want to meet. On the surface they look just a little unusual, because mom (Miriam) is a lawyer and dad (Saul) studies at home and cooks the meals. Son Aaron is the ideal Jewish son, who plays the guitar with his father and wants to be a rabbi when he grows up. Daughter Eliza is the misfit or black sheep. In a family of over-achievers, she is entirely ordinary, until she discovers an amazing talent for spelling that carries her all the way to the National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C.

Although they live under the same roof, none of the members of this family are really satisfied or happy with each other. They have no real connections, and so they go looking elsewhere. Saul has already tried drugs earlier in his life, and thinks he has found what he wants in his Jewish roots and his family--especially his son. Miriam has a vision of what life ought to be, that only she can see, and she secretly and obsessively tries to achieve it. Aaron is cast adrift when Saul begins focusing on Eliza's spelling talent. Missing his father's attention, he realizes he has bought Judaism without reading the label, and begins to look elsewhere for spiritual fulfillment. A lonely, sensitive, seeking teenager is an easy target for a cult. After so many years of being a disappointment, Eliza doesn't really want anything except her father's approval. But what her father wants from her is much, much more than spelling bee trophies, and she too is swept into the mystical side of Judaism.

With everyone going in different directions, it is no surprise when the family crumbles. Miriam can no longer hide her mental illness; Aaron wants to leave home to live with cult members; Saul can't understand why his family isn't what he thought it was; and Eliza--whose spelling talent has been the catalyst that provoked the changes--feels responsible and pushes herself harder.

This is a sad, sad book. All four main characters are well-drawn, so that you hurt with them. But the saddest part is that they all want the same thing, and they are all looking in the wrong places. I think it's rare for a book to focus so much on the spiritual needs of people, but I'm afraid the author doesn't have any good answers to offer. For that, I suggest reading a different book. The final answer in this book seems to be that everyone has these needs, but it doesn't matter where you try to find the answers, because nothing is really satisfying. Or rather, you can be satisfied only if you choose to live in a fantasy world. The author also seems to make a special point of highlighting the similarities between the the cultic chants of Aaron and the Jewish chants Eliza learns to do, as if to imply that all religions are basically the same.

I enjoyed the book, but couldn't recommend it highly. There are a few graphic passages, so definitely don't hand this one to your children.

The saddest scene in the story takes place between Saul and Miriam. Miriam is in the mental hospital, and Saul, trying to understand what has happened, finds a shoebox under the bed containing a pink rubber ball. He bounces it a few times and decides to take it to his wife, as she has obviously saved it for some reason. When she sees the box, she is thrilled. The pink rubber ball, which she has had since childhood, represents the perfection for which she has always sought. She opens the box and takes out the ball, only to find that Saul has ruined it. Yes, it was still in pristine condition after all these years--all she ever did with it was keep it safe--and Saul's casual bounces have left scuffs that have spoiled it forever in her eyes.

The people we love may unintentionally hurt us in casual ways, but I think it behooves us all to be a lot more forgiving about it than Miriam was.


At 4:15 PM , Blogger At A Hen's Pace said...

I've heard this book recommended often, but haven't read it.

Thanks for the review!


At 5:43 PM , Blogger Sherry said...

You wrote a much more thorough and thoughtful review of this book than I did. I just read it a couple of weeks ago.

By the way, I saw you winning that word game when we were tring it out the other day. YOu must have had a lot of practice. Our score, with half the family helping, was abysmal.

At 5:53 PM , Blogger Anne said...

I read this book last year, and I don't recommend it either. It did, however, make me extremely thankful for my life and many blessings. :-)

Have you seen the movie? It departed from the book in many ways, and I only watched it to see how they portrayed the "room".


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