Like most families, the Naumanns have settled comfortably into a routine, each member playing an accepted role in the day-to-day family drama. Saul, a cantor who devotes himself to the study of Jewish mysticism, is the family anchor, preparing the meals, running the household, and nurturing his son Aaron’s interest in Judaism. Miriam, a brilliant and compulsive high-powered lawyer, slips easily into the role of wage-earner, happy to leave the emotional demands of family life and parenting to her husband. Smart, socially isolated, and physically awkward, teen-ager Aaron thrives under his father’s attention, relishing their shared scholarly pursuits and secure in the knowledge that he will become an eminent rabbi. Amid this dazzling display of intellectual power and intensity, Eliza, an unremarkable fourth-grade student, is resigned to remaining in the shadows. But her surprising triumph in a classroom spelling bee and her ascent to the national championships launch Eliza into the spotlight, radically altering the family dynamics. Saul is soon lavishing time and attention on Eliza, leaving Aaron desperate to find something to replace the connections—to his father and his faith—that have sustained him. For Miriam, the sudden emergence of her daughter’s ability to apply the concentration and the desire for perfection that define her own self-image triggers a flood contradictory emotions and sends her life spiraling out of control. And, as her studies with her father escalate beyond simple word drills to explorations of the writings of one of history’s greatest Kabbalist, Eliza discovers that her talent for spelling opens the door to far more mysterious gifts.
Myla Goldberg chronicles the details of the Naumann’s suddenly unsettled world—the subtle interplay between an estranged husband and wife, the love-hate relationship of two siblings, the shifting loyalties of parent and child—with a wonderful mixture of humor and compassion. In disclosing the joys, confusions, and pain of a young girl’s coming-of-age, she uncovers the hidden longings that shape—and sometimes destroy—the delicate fabric of family life.