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?