Welcome to my blog. I am Miriam Downey, the Cyberlibrarian. I am a retired librarian and a lifelong reader. I read and review books in four major genres: fiction, non-fiction, memoir and spiritual. My goal is to relate what I read to my life experience. I read books culled from reviews in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Bookmarks, and The New Yorker. I also accept books from authors and publicists. I am having a great time.
Hope you will join me on the journey.
Saturday, August 18, 2012
Where'd You Go, Bernadette
by Maria Semple
New York, Little, Brown, 2012
330 pages Fiction
Finally, a book so absorbing that I read it in one sitting!
And it is funny besides! One would think that Maria Semple, a former TV comedy
writer, would write a lot of witty dialogue, but instead she chose an
epistolary style for Where’d You Go, Bernadette, featuring emails, reports,
school memos, and letters. As one reviewer says, “. . .these pieces are strung
together so wittily that Ms. Semple’s storytelling is always front and center,
in sharp focus. You could stop and pay attention to how apt each new format is,
how rarely she repeats herself and how imaginatively she unveils every bit of
information. But you would have to stop laughing first.”
The paper trail tells
the story of Bernadette, who moved involuntarily from Los Angeles to Seattle so
that her husband, Elgin, could take a job with Microsoft. Bernadette hates
Seattle, hates the school her daughter Bee attends, hates Microsoft, hates the
weather, and hates her life. She has become agoraphobic and it immobilizes her.
It is mid-book before we find out that Bernadette is a genius architect with a
McArthur Genius grant, which she has never been able to use. Bee, her daughter,
loves and understands her mother and is constantly annoyed with her father,
who, as a prominent executive, is seldom home.
Bee is a young genius with straight A’s, or as her school
assigns them, straight S’s, which means “surpasses excellence.” Her parents
promised her that if she got straight S’s, she could have anything she wanted.
She wants a trip to Antarctica. Not something that an agoraphobic mother might
be looking forward to.
Bernadette, husband Elgin, and daughter Bee are sympathetic,
albeit crazy characters. Elgin has given the fourth most popular TEDtalk ever. (I
was really proud of myself for knowing what TEDtalks are.) He also walks around
in sock feet and bikes to work. As in many dysfunctional families, Bee is the stable
one, keeping the whole household functioning.
As the plot thickens, the humor thickens as well. I laughed
out loud several times. Where'd You Go Bernadette is just zany good fun. The secondary cast of
characters is delightful. My favorite character is Manjula Kapoor, who is
Bernadette’s personal assistant and lives in India. Bernadette pays her $.75 an
hour. Manjula does everything for Bernadette, including buying airplane
tickets, supplies for Antarctica, and scamming her out of her identity.
Seattle and Microsoft are characters as well. The book
spoofs the Microsoft work-ethic and the nouveau riche that it has created. It
also sends up the constant layoffs and re-organizations. The weather in Seattle
is a running gag as are all the lifestyle choices the characters make. The high
point of the novel occurs because of an argument with a neighbor. The hill
around Bernadette’s house is cleared of its blackberries brambles and the whole
hill collapses in the rain. A mudslide almost destroys the neighbor’s house
right in the middle of the school’s recruitment brunch. A Seattle bookseller said in an interview “In a
way, Seattle hasn’t had anyone really do anything that makes it look at itself
For all the craziness, the reader comes to care about Bernadette and her family. When the details unfold, the reader desires to
find out why Bernadette vanished and why Bee and Elgin have set out to find her. The
Seattle Times reviewer, who loved the book, summed up her review thus: “Semple
has a big heart, and possesses that rare ability to skewer, dissect and
empathize with her targets, all at the same time.”
I received the book from the publicist. So glad I did. NPR
mentioned it on their must-read list of books for the summer. I know you will
love the book as much as I did.
Where'd You Go Bernadette has been reviewed a great deal. Here are some reviews published this week: