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 and laugh.”

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:

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

I heard this was quite was on display at a conference I attended this past Saturday.

Hope you can stop by my blog to read my post about the book conference I attended in New York City this past Saturday.

A giveaway is also directly below my Mailbox Monday post.

Silver’s Reviews