Friday, February 5, 2010

Dueling Review: "Of Bees and Mist" by Erick Setiawan

Recently, my book club read Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan. As I was reading, I realized, “Wait a second, I have such a great opportunity here to get opposing reviews of the same book! I can get two completely different perspectives to share with my readers!”

So that’s what I’ve done—or tried to do rather. It turns out that Of Bees and Mist was so incredible that both reviewers loved it. But take a look and see what it is that made this book so special for each of them. (And stay tuned for another Dueling Review, but I’ll make sure their actually dueling!)

And now, with no further ado, please welcome Rachel Bostic and Meghan Stevenson for the first Reading Between the Lines dueling review.

A Review by Rachel:

Of Bees and Mist is a stunning literary debut from Erick Setiawan. Reminiscent of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Of Bees and Mist uses magical realism to tell the story of Meridia, a young woman whose troubled parents are unable to relate to her. Her father stares her down and critiques her clothing and character every morning and her mother frequently forgets her existence. Tormented by ghosts in mirrors, extreme cold, nightmares, and expanding staircases, Meridia escapes her home at the first opportunity—when she meets and falls in love with Daniel.

In addition to falling for Daniel, she falls in love with his family, who are so different from her own. It is only after the young lovers wed and Meridia moves into her husband’s family home that she discovers the true nature of her mother in law, a cruel, manipulative woman who uses every method at her disposal—including supernatural ones—to exert her power over those around her. At first Eva doesn’t realize that she’s met her match in Meridia, and the duel that springs up between them has unexpected consequences for all of those around them.

At its heart, Of Bees and Mist is a love story. Loss of innocence, discovery of one’s true strength, and the power of both forgiveness and revenge are explored through unexplainable phenomena as well as a relationship that rings true to life. Setiawan skillfully weaves Indonesian superstition, Chinese heritage, and American ideals into compelling portraits of a number of different women, getting right what they fear, what they hate, what they love, and what they most want.

While magical realism is not a style that everyone loves, for me it emphasized the parts of life that can seem to have mystical elements—falling in love, fighting with those close to you. The mist covering Meridia’s father cloaks his shame and his secrets and Meridia quickly learns the futility of fighting against it. Eva’s stinging and harassing bees demonstrate the power of hateful and poisonous words. We all imbue certain memories or experiences with a brightness or menacing atmosphere that don’t exist in the physical world, and Setiawan does an excellent job, for me, of tying supernatural elements into those emotions in the text.

Of Bees and Mist isn’t for the faint of heart. Its message is that love certainly does not conquer all, and that growing up isn’t a painless journey. I’d say it’s a novel for those who have loved and lost, and for those who have loved and lost and come together again. It’s for those who believe that if there isn’t magic in everyday life, maybe there should be.

A Review by Meghan:

I received a copy of this book from a friend without its jacket; that I had no idea what to expect was an understatement. My friend and I share the books for a book club that reads a lot of YA and commercial fiction, so I had no idea what the bees or the mist were. But once I opened the book, I quickly found myself completely delighted to read about a magical world without place or time. I had no idea when or where the characters lived, and at some point, I stopped guessing.

The magical, undefined setting freed me as a reader to be completely enchanted and curious as to what was going to happen to our lonely but lovely protagonist. In the beginning, I compared this book to Jane Eyre a bit—but by the middle of the book, I realized that the heroine in Of Bees and Mist could totally whip Jane’s butt, and not in a mean-girl type of way. Rather, I found the main character Meridia to be a strong woman who knows the difference between right and wrong, and wants to reconcile reality with her morals. She strives to figure out how to accomplish that goal throughout the book.

I actually found a lot of situations in this novel to be more real than you would expect from magical realism; the author brings some common familial conflicts to the plot that will resonate with a lot of readers, and I feel the manipulation between and at the hands of the characters was really, really well crafted and made the book suspenseful in a way most novels today are not.

Without giving away too much of the plot, I feel that this novel is similar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez in that it uses magical realism to show some of human nature that’s not apparent in the normal world—the dark forces or bees that individuals use to manipulate others; the mist that traps some of us in the past. This is the perfect subway read—it takes you away without requiring that much of you. I heartily recommend it.

About the bloggers:

Rachel Bostic is a voracious reader, amateur belly dancer, and lover of all things purple. She currently works at Simon & Schuster as the marketing manager for Atria Books. Find her at

Meghan Stevenson is an associate editor at Hudson Street Press, working on prescriptive (how-to) and narrative nonfiction. She enjoys reading fiction because it’s not work-related. Originally from Wisconsin, Meghan has somewhat embarrassing hobbies and passions including but not limited to country music, useless yet extensive knowledge of one-hit wonders, Jason Segel and the New York Mets. Her first New York Times bestseller contained the line “Bros before ho’s.” (Seriously: Page 11 of THE BRO CODE.) She has a penchant for trivia and more cats than people live in her apartment.

Thanks for joining us at Reading Between the Lines, Rachel and Meghan!

If you or anyone you know would like to guest blog for RBtL, please inquire via e-mail.

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