Friday, July 19, 2013

"Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, Bernadette is not "one of the year's best books" (according to the cover), but it's a fun and occasionally funny summer read. The novel's written in epistolary form, a structure which often annoys me (it seems sophomoric), but the format works here to highlight the comedic elements of the story. Fortunately the compiler of the letters (the titular Bernadette's daughter, Bee) also includes straight first person narration where necessary, saving the book from unrealistic dialogue and action-heavy letters.

The story concerns Bernadette, a once rising star in the architecture field who fled L.A. with her husband and daughter after one of her projects was destroyed.  Bernadette's lived as a recluse since then, and her stress builds when Bee insists on a trip to Antarctica for her 8th grade graduation and Bernadette gets into a series of tiffs with Audrey, the mother next door whose son attends the same private school as Bee. And, as is suggested by the title, Bernadette eventually goes missing, leaving Bee and her father, Elgin, to find her.

Bernadette is an amusing character, making fun of the private school helicopter parents and riffing on various things that annoy her. It's a little hard to see the agoraphobic mother as a star architect and winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant, but that's okay. However, pretty quickly all the characters run together--there's little to distinguish the style and tone of one from the other. Even 15-year-old Bee sounds similar to her father, or her father's amorous admin.

Nonetheless, I plowed through the book, particularly since the letter format makes it easy to read. The action keeps moving quickly (disaster piling atop disaster), and it was worth it to see the descent of Audrey, even if she does come too close to a caricature of "snooty private school mom."

[Spoiler Alert] Yet the ending was really too far-fetched, not just because of the Antarctic heist but because it wraps up some significant issues without actually addressing them. I mean, Elgin is going to be a father to Soo-Lin's baby, so Bernadette can't just declare she will "swat her away [her]self" (326). He's also (though perhaps temporarily) unemployed and all their financial accounts have been taken over by the Russian mafia (or whatever), which means the family is more or less without money, which I would think would make Bernadette's return to real life rather difficult. And though perhaps Bernadette's hopeful letter (in which she is unaware of the baby and job loss), which ends the book, could be meant to be satirical, that tone wouldn't fit in with the rest of the novel, so I'm taking it to be intended as a sincere happy ending.

But, as always, I'm focusing on the flaws when it was an enjoyable two-day read, one I probably should have saved for my upcoming long plane ride to the UK!

Stray Thoughts:
- I have issue with novels where people have sex together one time and the woman gets pregnant (this; Water for Elephants). I mean, I know an unexpected pregnancy builds drama, but the rate is so misleadingly higher in books than in real life. I especially hate books where the virgin gets pregnant her first go (I'm looking at you, The Natural and A Thousand Splendid Sons, among others). How about all those people who have sex and don't get pregnant?
- I also hate the hyperbolic blurbs on books that are somewhat comedic. I mean, how often do you really laugh out loud during a book (Bossypants--hands down. But that's it.)? So the dude from People blurbing that Bernadette is "an uproarious comedy" or Redbook saying "[I'll] laugh [my] pants off" is just annoying.
- [Spoiler again] Was it not weird that the "Manjula" issue was wrapped up so perfunctorily? I mean, there's something about this first world woman whining about her privileged life in long letters to this Indian woman being paid 75 cents an hour, but, then, no, "It's the Russian mafia" and the whole issue is done. Also, "Manjula" did do everything Bernadette asked... 

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