I thought, upon first opening it, that it was a nice little book about a spelling bee. That is not the case. It may look like a light read because of the length, but light it is not. There are spelling bees though. That line of thought was at least right.
It’s a stroy about a family, a dysfunctional family as most tend to be. Eliza is the youngest in a family of great minds, but she is not like them. Doesn’t have anything “special” about her. She doesn’t shine nor does she get a place in the advanced classes in school or bring home straight As. Meanwhile, her father is the cantor in a local synogague, her mother a successful lawyer and her brother a gifted student.
But ordinary Eliza doesn’t seem so ordinary after she wins her class’ spleeing bee, then the school’s and then goes on to the regional match. Then everything changes. Her father opens his study to her — a place formerly forbidden. Her brother resents her for stealing the father’s attentions away and her already aloof mother pulls further away from the family.
At its core, the book is about religion, and each individual’s search to communicate with God or with a higher power. To me it seemed as each person moved closer to finding a spiritual revelation, they moved further away from each other and away from sanity.
In the end, I just didn’t enjoy the book. I found it difficult to connect with the characters. Though it is supposed to be a young-coming-of-age story about Eliza, I felt more sad for her at the end than anything else.
At first the mother annoyed me because it was clear she didn’t love her children, or understand them. The son, Aaron, is a shelfish teenager just looking for his father’s acceptance; Saul, the father is all about ambition, focusing his attention on the child most likely to be seen as something special at the moment. And Eliza, she was for the most part a normal young girl, the most relatable character though pushed to the edge by her father’s own ambitions to see her succeed. The characters can’t seem to connect or understand each other on even the most basic level, and at some points I just wanted them to sit down and open up to each other. Which they never really did.
In the end, the family falls apart. Mariam’s descent was the most surprising and came about so fast as to make my head spin, she ends up in a psychiatric hospital though what leads to her mental illness was not fully revealed. In the end they are all a mess and the book doesn’t tie up any loose ends. I won’t give away exactly how it ends but the only character who seems to have the ends tied up is Eliza. The rest are just left open.
Two stars out of four