I just this second got back from an extended post-Christmas inlaw visit three states away and I'm still catching up with everything, including my good temper (from the day-long drive, not the visit). I did, however, read a book over the two days I was up there, and wrote this review the second I'd finished it (well, almost, you'll see). So I'm going to post the booklove review and go make cookie dough and after that possibly think about looking at my email inbox after that. Possibly. The thought makes me quail . . .
here it is: OF BEES AND MIST, by Erick Setiawan.
And the review:
Almost exactly two hours ago, I finished reading OF BEES AND MIST, and I’m still in its spell. Normally I am opposed to writing reviews right after I read a book, because often my opinion of a book needs time to sort of marinate. I tend to get fonder of a book the longer I’ve had to think, but I have to say, my fondness for this book is pretty darn inconsequential. What matters is that this curious novel has dug its way under my skin in a way I can tell will last for quite awhile. Saying that OF BEES AND MIST is a fable-like story of two women -- one whose birth home is infested by perpetual mist and one who literally whispers bees -- who are locked in furious and long-lasted battle is rather inadequate. If I add that its chapters are hung lusciously with metaphor (see what I did there?) I get a little closer.
But the real charm and danger both of this book are the familial relationships. Because the two women at the heart of the book (though there are many -- for a book written by a man, I’m pretty much blown away by the scads of nuanced, strong women in this novel)(he has possibly stolen my estrogen)(it’s all right, he’s making good use of it), Eva and Meridia, are mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Their common link is a pleasant but flawed man, and the way that the author paints the relationship between mother, daughter-in-law, husband, sister-in-law, etc. etc. is very familiar for all its magic realism trappings.
Meridia escapes from a troubled home life directly into the arms of Daniel, a guileless young man. From him she inherits a complicated family drama ultimately controlled by Eva, who is a wicked stepmother in the most horrifying and delicious meaning of the phrase. Anyone who has had the slightest amount of conflict with their in-laws or extended family will appreciate the subtleties and motivations of every character in OF BEES. Events and what each party’s perception of events are often delightfully confused. This is young, married life, served with family-sized side dishes of guilt trips, subtext, and meaningful looks. Definitely enough to share and enough again to take home for later. But there’s joy, too, and charm aplenty, and some moments stark and moving in their suddenly unsentimental view of love.
A clever tale like this, brimming with none-so-subtle metaphors and magic, could easily be an intriguing exercise in the fantastic and mundane, but the reason OF BEES is getting put here in my five-stars category is that the characters evoked genuine emotion and sympathy from me. The phrase “flawed, strong heroine” is thrown around too much, but Meridia is that if I’ve ever seen one. She makes bad choices, hard choices, but she always makes A choice and you’re always convinced she’s the hero regardless; her goodness is not in question. Normally, I can’t tolerate infidelity plotlines but infidelity in this case was necessary (though agonizing). This book was both a pleasure and a pain to read and I’m so glad I picked it up -- entirely by chance, while rushing through the store on the way out of town. Might’ve been the work of fate or of the engineering spirits, if OF BEES is to be believed.