Friday, January 7, 2011

Of Bees and Mist

Title: Of Bees and Mist
Author: Erick Setiawan
Themes: magic, marriage, love, fidelity, loyalty, family, independence
Rating: ****

Plot: Raised in a sepulchral house where ghosts dwell in mirrors, Meridia grows up lonely and miserable. But at age sixteen, she has a chance at happiness when she falls in love with Daniel-a caring and naive young man. Soon they marry, and Meridia can finally escape to live with her husband's family, unaware that they harbor dark secrets of their own. There is a grave hidden in the garden, there are two sisters groomed from birth to despise each other, and there is Eva-the formidable matriarch and the wickedest mother-in-law imaginable-whose grievances swarm the air in an army of bees. As Meridia struggles to keep her life and marriage together, she discovers long-buried secrets about her own past as well as shocking truths about her new family that inexorably push her love, courage, and sanity to the brink.

Of Bees and Mist is an engrossing fable that chronicles three generations of women under one family tree over a period of thirty years-their galvanic love and passion, their shifting alliances, their superstitions and complex domestic politics-and places them in a mythical town where spirits and spells, witchcraft and demons, and prophets and clairvoyance are an everyday reality. Erick Setiawan's astonishing debut is a richly atmospheric and tumultuous ride of hope and heartbreak that is altogether touching, truthful, and entirely memorable.

My Thoughts: First comments have to go to yet another cover-flap summary that I find slightly misleading. Hailed as an "engrossing fable that chronicles three generations of women under one family tree..." is rather silly since this book has one main character. Yes her mother is also a character, her son is also a character (later on anyway, sorry if that spoils anything!)...who is this third family member of the female persuasion? Do they mean her mother-in-law (the one with the bees that is)? I guess I will never know. But don't expect a sweeping family saga, this focuses in on the life of Meridia, and all others are secondary characters who form a part of her story.

With that mini-rant aside, I have to now ramble about the setting of Of Bees and Mist, which must be fantasy-oriented and yet I have a hard time placing it in an alternate universe. It is altogether too close to our real world, yet so completely different. When I began reading this I pictured late 20th century or maybe early 21st century (no later than the 1930s!) Europe or United States (I guess I can toss in Canada as a contender?). The clothing and housing styles seemed to fit this, as well as the names and working/schooling/living conditions. cars or any sort of transportation except walking. But printing presses and books and large houses and dinner parties and dates at the beach and manicurists and cafes and lipsticks. There are super-naturalists and psychics and midwives and ghosts and changing stairways and colored mists and malicious bees, in this modern setting, and it's so normal-even for the reader. I love this immersive and convincing other-reality, yet part of me HATED it because it was oh-so-familiar yet I could never fit it into a historical or physical location. Not even close. I admit the characters did not move me much, but the setting made this novel. It was a character itself; one that I tried to puzzle out until the very close.

Meridia's childhood could have provided enough stimuli for a series of novels, yet only takes the first few chapters of Of Bees and Mist. Her courtship and marriage take a few more, then her slow realization of her mother-in-law's "true side" takes only one or two. Yet the book is so much longer, Meridia spends the rest of Eva's long life trying to escape her, with varying degrees of success. There is family drama to rival a soap opera, there is magic there is death and there is infidelity. And Meridia loses nearly everything before she escapes her mother's footsteps and Eva's manipulations. It's a dramatic and eventful story of marriage and responsibilities. It has elements of folk lore and fairy, it has nostalgia and hope, but mostly-it has an off-setting world which captivates the reader and propels him or her to the conclusion of the novel whether he or she cares a bit about Meridia or not.

Random Passage: "With nothing to lose, Meridia grew more daring in the next five days. Increasingly, she defended Permony against Eva, fabricating excuses, drawing Elias into the fray, and, when nothing else was to be done, snatching the girl outright from her mother's talons (p. 139)."

Recommendation: I had a hard time "getting into" Of Bees and Mist. For the first 12 pages. Then I read the other 300 plus pages in one sitting. My relationship with this book is ambivalent. I want to love it, I voraciously ate it up, but it left a funny taste. I would recommend this book, however, not to just anyone. Not just anyone could appreciate it's uniqueness and pacing. But, if you are at all interested or intrigued after reading the publisher's summary and my rambling thoughts on Of Bees and Mist than it might just be the book for you.

Similar Reads: Fitcher's Brides by Gregory Frost, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Setiawan, Erick. Of Bees and Mist. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

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