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Erick Setiawan – Of Bees and Mist

November 10, 2010

132. Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan (2009)

Length: 405 pages
Genre: Magical Realism / Literary Fantasy

Started: 21 October 2010
Finished: 26 October 2010

Where did it come from? From the publishers for review via TLC Book Tours.
Why do I have it? It’s been on my wishlist since a review at My Fluttering Heart (which has since been removed.)
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 10 October 2010.

An evil mother-
in-law is a lot worse when
she can do magic.

Summary: Merida grew up in a house that was never warm, caught between a mother who frequently forgot she was there in the midst of vast tempramental rages, and a father who was harshly critical, and who was whisked away by a mysterious mist every night to the house of his mistress. When, as a teen, she meets Daniel, a charming young man who really sees her, she thinks she’s escaping from her terrible home life… when in reality she’s moving to one that’s far worse. The young couple moves into Daniel’s family’s house, and Merida soon discovers her true position in a house that’s ruled at the whim of Eva, Daniel’s mother, who is a selfish, cunning, and manipulative women who will stop at nothing – not even dark charms and spells – to have things her own way.

Review: I frequently have a problem with magical realism: sometimes it works for me, but often it feels like a book just didn’t want to commit to crossing the border into full-on fantasy and risk getting slapped with that pesky genre label. But while Of Bees and Mists is brimming over with magical realism elements – spells, fortune tellers, seemingly sentient mists, dark visions, mysterious illnesses and cures, etc. – these actually wound up being the elements I liked best about this book. Erick Setiawan certainly has a way with language, and the world he weaves is at once completely fantastical and yet recognizably mundane, so that you’re never sure if his characters are moving through a world that’s a few degrees off of ours, or if they do live in our world, with the bizarre elements of the story entirely a product of their skewed perceptions. This could have turned out very gimmicky, but it’s surprisingly effective, and it was very easy to get lost in the tone and the rhythm of the story. It’s easy to believe that Eva’s very words could be weaving a spell over Merida, when Setiawan’s words are so clearly weaving a spell over his readers.

However, while I was enamored of the style, I was somewhat less engaged by the story. The front cover calls it a “domestic drama” and the back cover calls it “an engrossing fable that chronicles three generations of women,” so it was clearly shooting for literary family saga. However, what it read like to me was 400 pages of Eva being horrifically nasty to Merida, and Merida fighting back, followed by Eva finding a new way to be horrifically nasty to Merida and Merida finding a new way of striking back. This may have been more dramatic if I’d been at all emotionally attached to Merida, but I didn’t particularly care for her, nor really for anyone else who put up with Eva’s abuse. By the time the ending rolled around, I wasn’t entirely sure what the point of the preceding pages had been (other than perhaps “Man, sometimes in-laws are just awful, huh?”).

In summary, I felt like this book valued style over substance, which is not necessarily a bad thing… in moderation. Had it been a hundred and fifty pages shorter, I would have had no complaints. But while I enjoyed Setiawan’s writing, and was enchanted by the world he built, I just wish he’d had more of a story to fill that world, instead of the same plot point over and over. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you like your fiction literary, your realism magical, and your in-laws made of pure nastiness and spite, then this is your book! The back cover includes blurbs from John Connolly and Keith Donohue, who I think are very appropriate choices… if you liked The Book of Lost Things and The Stolen Child, then Of Bees and Mist might be right up your alley as well.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Books and Things, Chasing Bawa, Life… With Books, Musings of a Bookish Kitty, Rundpinne, See Michelle Read, Valentina’s Room, The Whimsical Cottage, YA Addict
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Few in town agreed on when the battle began.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2010 7:26 am

    I occasionally find that “literary fiction” (oh, how that term drives me up the wall!) tends to go for style over substance; what a shame, especially since Setiawan’s prose sounds so wonderful.

    • November 10, 2010 11:41 am

      Omni – I don’t particularly like the “literary fiction” designation either, especially when authors/publishers apply it to themselves (so pretentious!), but there are definitely cases where it seems to me like the author was trying to be “literary”… which is not always a good thing, since it oftentimes gets in the way of telling a good story.

      • November 10, 2010 4:06 pm

        Even the term itself is redundant! Gah. But I can see where you’re coming from–some authors are trying too hard.

      • November 12, 2010 10:02 am

        Omni – I’m not always consistent about it, but I think a lot of the time when I use the term “literary fiction” it’s to imply that I could tell the author was consciously trying to be fancy-pants about their language and prose style… so it’s not always a good thing to be classed as literary fiction, at least for me.

  2. November 10, 2010 9:38 pm

    I’m sorry this one didn’t work better for you in spite of the gorgeous writing. I’m still interested in reading it myself though – it sounds like something I might like.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour. :)

    • November 12, 2010 10:05 am

      Heather – I definitely think this book will appeal to a lot of people – depending on how much you value character vs. plot vs. language in general, and how well you respond to Setiawan’s characters and plot and language in particular.

  3. November 12, 2010 9:19 pm

    I know what you mean about Merida – I haven’t read the whole book yet, but I’m a little ways in and I haven’t identified with her at all. :/ But I do like the style, and I’m hoping I’ll enjoy the nastiness.

    • November 16, 2010 9:59 am

      Jenny – Okay, it’s good to know it’s not just me. I’ll be interested to hear what you think once you’ve finished the book!

  4. November 13, 2010 11:57 am

    Sounds like a mostly good book – I do really love books with a lot of style, although it’t too bad the story isn’t quite enough.

    • November 16, 2010 10:00 am

      Kim – I think it’s entirely a personal thing as to how much story is “enough” – plenty of people really loved this book with no complaints about the plot.

  5. November 20, 2010 3:59 pm

    Great review!

    I too was unsure what their world was … ours but a little bit off, something totally different. It was interesting and well done and probably the best part of the book.

    I agree too that the description on the book jacket was a little overreaching. It didn’t feel like a generational spanning story … it was very much just Meridia and Eva I thought.

    • November 22, 2010 3:46 pm

      Jenners – Agreed! If you’re going to call something “three generations”, you have to have the third generation grow up to at least the age of the second generation. In this case, the kid (I don’t remember his name) doesn’t really have a story of his own separate from that of his parents and grandparents.


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