Monday, January 23, 2017

Book review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

I was supposed to read this book about two years ago for my book club, but I had a conflict and so I didn't get to reading it. I'd heard nothing but good things, and I'd also heard it was really funny which is unusual in a novel, but the raves got so amazing that they turned me skeptical. I thought it surely couldn't live up to the hype. Then the author came to the independent bookstore in my town in the fall for the latest book, Today Will Be Different, so I read that one first. And it was great so I decided to go back for this earlier novel. And yay, I'm so glad I did!

I don't know that I'd describe it as funny per se, at least not in a laugh-out-loud sort of way, but it was highly amusing, quirky, and definitely having some fun. Which are all tricky for a straightforward novel.

The book is mostly epistlary but is narrated by Bee, a 15-year-old, throughout. She makes transitions, explains things, and then at the end there's much more narration. Because her mother, Bernadette, has disappeared (this isn't a spoiler—it's pretty much given away by the title) and she's reading through a bunch of emails and letters and confirmations from a variety of places and people—her school, her father, her father's administrative assistant at Google, a neighbor and fellow school mom who hates that Bernadette's blackberry brambles are growing into her yard, and we even gets some fun things like an article in Architectural Digest about Bernadette's career and a transcript of Bee's father's TED talk. But at the beginning, things seem mostly normal. Bee's mother seems very introverted but not agoraphobic—she picks Bee up from school every day although she hates interacting with the other parents (who she refers to as gnats) and they run errands and the like. But she has hired a virtual assistant in India to take care of projects like booking a family vacation to Antarctica and investigating seasickness remedies.

But things start to go off the rails. And as Bernadette's life suddenly spirals out of control, she snaps, and vanishes. Bee is naturally trying to find her using this paper trail to hunt for clues. When I was 50 pages from the end, I really did pause and say to myself, man, I do not know how Ms. Semple is going to wrap up  everything and do so in a way that isn't profoundly sad. And yet, she does! That truly takes skill because there were a lot of plates spinning on sticks at that point. Bernadette isn't the most sympathetic character but I think we immediately warm up to her because Bee is awesome and Bee just loves her. Plus, a lot of us have been annoyed by the super-involved yoga-pants-wearing organic-food-shopping SUV-driving middle-school Moms that so drive her crazy (and even if you are one of those, you'll still find these hilarious.) And from her description, her falling-down house (that used to be a school for wayward girls) is cool, and Seattle is boring. And perhaps we're getting a skewed picture, which is one of the fun tricks of an epistolary novel—when done well each letter truly needs to be in the unique voice of that character.

I wish the book was longer! I wish there was a sequel! I wish Ms. Semple wrote faster! This was a delight from beginning to end.

I don't know where I bought this book but it's obviously used. I've had it for a couple of years.

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