By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated June 30, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Like the shards of divine light that mystics believe were scattered when the world began, the Jewish Naumann family splits apart in Myla Goldberg’s inventive, pop-scholarly first novel Bee Season. And what sets spiritual chaos in motion is an all-American spelling bee, during which Eliza, the ”dull” daughter, turns out to have a championship-quality affinity for the magic of letters: The more time her mystical-minded father devotes to training her like a rabbinical scholar, the more her brother and mother drift away. Goldberg describes the complex secret lives of her characters with passionate intensity. But the author’s plans for nuclear-family fission outpace her control of the plot: She shapes the fate of each Naumann to fit a formal design rather than a truth or consequence. B

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