Goldberg’s arrival in the literary world was greeted with the highest of accolades from critics nationwide. Newsweek’s Jeff Giles called Bee Season “marvelous” and stated, “It is amazing how quickly a true talent can announce itself. In the case of Myla Goldberg, it is not even a matter of pages, but of sentences.” He went on to declare, “But this is by no means a modest book, either in scope or intellect.” Library Journal declared Goldberg a “talented storyteller,” while a starred Publishers Weekly review applauded the author’s originality: “While coming-of-age stories all bear a certain similarity, Goldberg strikes new ground here, and displays a fresh, distinctive and totally winning voice.” Yet it is much more than Goldberg’s precision in word choice; her prose resonates so deeply and with such immediacy that readers will be drawn, somewhat reluctantly, back to the vagaries of childhood. Eliza’s tender naïveté and youthful sufferings are expressed with such clarity that they leap off the page. The reader, however, knows what Eliza does not; her angst and perplexity are not the musings of an ordinary schoolgirl, but a gifted youth. Though she is convinced of her mediocrity, Goldberg’s heroine will not be leading an ordinary life.
What begins as a disarming story of eleven-year-old Eliza’s boredom with school turns into a complicated character study of a family in a slow but steady decline. Eliza has failed to live up to her parents’ expectations and is resigned to an unremarkable academic life in a combined fourth and fifth grade class, “which everybody knows is where the unimpressive fifth graders are put.” She cannot compete with her older brother Aaron, who was designated “talented and gifted” at an early age and has rabbinical aspirations. Aaron’s promise is so great that he has been allowed access to their father Saul’s hallowed enclave—his book-lined study. Saul spends endless hours in this shrine to ancient texts, deeply immersed in Jewish mysticism. Once Aaron gains entrance to the study, Eliza not only loses her former playmate and only friend, but also feels she must accept her shortcomings as both a student and a daughter.
Miriam Naumann is a distinguished lawyer and the family breadwinner. She is a creature of habit, coming and going at precise intervals and obsessed with order. The family dines together daily and attends synagogue every weekend; their outward appearance is one of familial closeness and harmony. Yet the Naumanns are a happy family only on the surface, and the emergence of Eliza’s gift shatters this mirage forever. As Paul Gray explained in his Time book review, as the story progresses, Goldberg
[E]mphasizes the essential isolation of each family member, how a genteel unwillingness to cause scenes or make hurtful comments has atrophied into an inability to say anything truthful at all. Miriam is simply baffled by her children; Saul’s parental love is directed more at what they can become than at the needy young people they happen to be.
Everything begins to change one unremarkable day at McKinley Elementary School, when Eliza stands for her classroom’s routine spelling bee. To the amazement of her teacher, Mrs. Bergermeyer, fellow students, and herself, Eliza is the last one standing after effortlessly spelling each word correctly. To her utter delight, Eliza is now considered worthy of scrutiny, not only by her teacher but by her fellow students as well. Believing it more a fluke than any testament to her intelligence, Eliza is nonetheless buoyed by her newfound acceptance. After winning the entire school’s spelling bee with ease, Eliza becomes determined to win the upcoming district contest and to go on to the national spelling bee finals in Washington, D.C. Despite her growing confidence, Eliza is frightened to tell her father—to disturb his scholarly seclusion with her meager achievements. When Saul finally does discover Eliza’s triumphs, he is thrilled but does not immediately reassess her intellectual capacity, believing her wins are a fortunate, albeit brief, bit of academic luck.
At the district bee, Eliza is more fascinated than nervous as she watches her fellow contestants: “One speller stands frozen beneath a hand smoothing a cowlick. Another melts into the floor as his mother rains words like hailstones upon his slumped shoulders.” Eliza gratefully is part of this “morbid camaraderie” but is more entranced by the sight of her parents and brother: “The singularity of their collective appearance outside...