June 05, 2000 12:00 PM

by Myla Goldberg

Rejected from McKinley Elementary School’s “talented and gifted” program, 9-year-old Eliza Naumann, the protagonist of this admirable first novel, has thus far done nothing to distinguish herself. Her more scholarly 15-year-old brother Aaron is the center of their rabbi father’s universe. All this shifts seismically the day McKinley holds its annual spelling bee and Eliza demonstrates a prodigious ability to handle anything Noah Webster’s got. That talent takes her first to the district, then to the state and national competitions, at the same time causing unforeseen strains for Aaron; her father, Saul, a scholar of Jewish mysticism; and her mother, Miriam, a compulsively tidy lawyer with a secret life as a shoplifter.

The assembling of letters to create words becomes a metaphor for the struggles of the Naumanns to make themselves whole. While Bee Season loses its way in the middle, the 28-year-old Goldberg is a skilled hand at evoking scenes—the stadium venue for a spelling bee that takes on the coloration of “the best-of-breed tent at a county fair”-and has a clear understanding of the heart of darkness that is often just another way of saying family. (Doubleday, $22.95)

Bottom Line: impressive debut

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