Bee Season by Myla Goldberg and Atonement by Ian McEwan

I’m not sure how many of my readers would enjoy or appreciate these two novels. I’m not sure how much I enjoyed them, although they were both intriguing. I’ve seen Bee Season on various lists and thought it might be something I would like reading given our current interest in spelling bees. However, the book is only tangentially about spelling bees. It’s more about words and Jewish/Eastern mysticism and chanting and letters and insanity. In the end, I think the insanity wins. It’s about a family that is falling apart because the family members are mentally aberrant, all four of them, each in his or her own way. The father is controlling and overly absorbed in the achievements of his two children, but distant when it comes to emotional interaction. The mother is literally mentally ill and extremely distant from her husband and her children. The son, Aaron, becomes a member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON, or Hare Krishnas) because his emotional needs for affirmation and love are not being met at home or anywhere else. And the daughter, Eliza, spells —really well, so well that she believes that God will speak to her through letters. As I said, the insanity wins; the family disintegrates; and the denouement (n. the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved) isn’t.

Atonement was a much more satisfying read. (WARNING) The two books share a theme (family disintegration) and a predeliction for more graphic sexual description than I am comfortable reading, but Atonement was more believable, even redeeming in a way. Whereas I had little or no hope after reading Bee Season that the characters in the book would ever come to some kind of peace or healing or forgiveness, Atonement has some hope for, well, atonement and forgiveness.

Atonement is written in three parts: two near-halves and then a shorter sort of epilogue that (WARNING) turns everything in the book upside down and makes you doubt your reactions to and evaluations of the entire story. The first section, the set-up, moves rather slowly. But the events in the first part are the core about which the the rest of the book revolves. Read carefully and note the characters’ differing points of view and their inability to understand what is really going on in anyone else’s mind.

The second part takes place mostly in France and in England at the beginning of the Second World War, in particular the evacuation of Dunkirk. This section is violent, but appropriately so. War is violent and nasty and uncontrollably insane. Even in England, two of the characters in the novel are working in a hospital, so they, too, see the violence and suffering that war brings. In this section of the book, the past impacts the present and breaks the family into distinct units, each an island of bitterness and misunderstanding.

The third part of the novel is, as I said, surprising, and you’ll have to read it for yourself. If you decide to read the novel, no fair peeking at the ending. You probably wouldn’t understand without the first two parts anyway.

The ending to Bee Season is somewhat surprising, too, although I could see it coming a little beforehand. It’s not nearly as thought-provoking. I did like the parts in Bee Season about the mentally ill mom; for some reason I’m captivated by stories of insanity and eccentricity. Maybe I’m on the edge myself?

Oh, by the way, Bee Season has been made into a “major motion picture”; my copy has a picture of Richard Gere on the cover, so I’m assuming he stars as the dad. Has anyone seen it?

Ian McEwan, the author of Atonement, has written and published several other novels, including one called Amsterdam which won the Booker Prize in 1998. Has anyone read it?

12 thoughts on “Bee Season by Myla Goldberg and Atonement by Ian McEwan

  1. I read Bee Season last year, and I found it very strange. I agree with you that the insanity wins. And also like you, I didn’t see any hope in the story. I saw the movie only because I was curious about how they would portray the “room”. Don’t want to say more and spoil it for those who haven’t read the book. The movie was quite different from the book, and it missed some key parts in my opinion.

    I also read Atonement several years ago because I’d heard so many people rave about it. I don’t remember any details — just that I was disappointed.

  2. I loved Atonement, but enjoyed only parts of Bee Season.

    I believe the general consensus is that McEwan was given the Booker for Amsterdam to make up for him not having won it for Enduring Love, which is a much stronger, better work–another one I loved. Under no circumstances, Sherry, should you read The Cement Garden.

  3. I really loved Atonement, which I read several years ago when it was first published. I found it very satisfying and thought the ending “twist” was brilliant. I’ve recommended this book to several people, but it seems that I had a more positive reaction to this book than others I know who have read it. I read Amsterdam this summer but didn’t like it as much as Atonement. Amsterdam seemed more … contrived. I had a sense of being able to see McEwan’s mind “working behind the scenes,” and I couldn’t enjoy the book as much. I felt like he was taking advantage of the reader somehow. And even though it also ends with an unexpected twist, I just had the sense that the twist was forced. I like McEwan’s prose, so I won’t say that Amsterdam was a bad read, because I did enjoy parts of it. It was just a little disappointing, particularly since I had liked Atonement so much.

  4. Oh, man, I love Atonement. Did you know they’re making it into a movie, too?

  5. Karmon

    I loved Bee Season, although I thought the Mother sections week. I felt each character was looking for a kind of perfection, only to be frustrated by their own limitation.It was sad that the only character that seemed to learn from the experience is the daughter.

  6. Terrific reviews, Sherry. Although it has been awhile since I read Bee Season, your thoughts ring true for me as well. It was an interesting book. I have not seen the movie, but I imagine I will eventually.

    I have yet to read Atonement but will be taking that journey later this year. It’s been mentioned among many as a favorite, I’ve noticed.

  7. Hello!

    I saw Bee Season on your list and was curious to read your review as it isn’t really about spelling bees after all, is it? I gave this book to my grandmother without having read it … oops!

    Since we plant o homeschool our twin one-year-old boys eventually, I found your “typical day” posts enlightening as well.

    Keep up the good writing!


  8. I thought Bee Season was very strange. I enjoyed the way that details about each character’s quirks and personality seeped out slowly. I especially loved learning the mother’s secrets.

  9. I suppose I’m not alone in my feelings, am I?

    Atonement has been on my TBR list for years, and I’ve never quite gotten the courage to read it; I do plan on it, someday, but I may have to be “forced” into it.

    I liked your thoughts on Bee Season; I agree that insanity won. And I found the mother repulsive (but then, you know how I am about absent/insane/bad mothers :). I liked Eliza best, and thought that much more could have been done with her experiences at the spelling bees.

    I haven’t seen the movie, though. Should I? (I’m actually toying with a book-to-movie post, having just seen Inkheart, and am planning to re-watch Chocolat. I could throw this one in the mix…)

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