Thursday, December 5, 2013

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

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Written by: Maria Semple

Published: 2012

SynopsisBernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.

“My heart started racing, not the bad kind of heart racing, like I'm going to die. But the good kind of heart racing, like, Hello, can I help you with something? If not, please step aside because I'm about to kick the shit out of life.”

I know this book had been given pretty good reviews by a few of you (Alley and Laura for starters) but what really made me want to read it was that cover. Damn that's a pretty cover. So when I found myself in a bookstore and I saw that cover on the shelf I couldn't not buy a copy could I? And I'm really glad I did. It's always good to know that you guys don't let me down with your recs AND I should totally keep buying books based on pretty covers because it works.

So this book, I really, really loved it. I took it to the beach with me to read and I ended up reading two-thirds of it while I sat on the beach, and then I ended up staying up way too late so that I could get it finished. I felt like it had to be finished that night or else it might lose some of the magic, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't kind of regret that choice the next day when I could barely keep my eyes open. The things we do for books amirite?

What did I love about this book? Umm, everything? I loved the epistolary style. Normally just hearing that a book is written in this style sends me running to the hills, not because I don't like the format, I actually really love it, but 9 times out of 10 it's done terribly and just comes off as kind of lazy. Semple manages to get around this by including all kinds of correspondence, things like email, post-it notes, faxes, reports and also included the occasional 'note' written by Bee as she goes through these documents. I also feel like one of the reasons this worked is that there was a reason for the epistolary format. After the disappearance of her mother (which happens at around the 2/3 point) Bee uses these to try and work out what led to her mother's disappearance and maybe, hopefully, hint at where she might have gone.

So I should probably rewind a little bit. Bernadette Fox is Bee's mum, and she's an eccentric agoraphobic (sort of?) crazy lady. I loved her, I loved her wholeheartedly, and I wanted to be her best friend. She'd absolutely hate that, but maybe if I approached her via email it'd work out okay. She actually reminded me a lot of myself, which is maybe a not so good thing. I mean, I'm not suffering from the range of legitimate psychological conditions she evidentially is, but there was something about her sardonic, grumpy manic energy that was familiar. Which is maybe why I felt so Chris Crocker any time someone was an ass to her.

And people are really nasty to her. Because she isn't your usual cookie-cutter stepford wife, all of the other mothers at Bee's school hate Bernadette and constantly gossip and complain about her lack of school pride. Because Bernadette is so offensive to what they've decided is important in life, they trespass onto her property and complain about blackberry thickets or falsely accuse her of running over their feet. And it made me so mad. Because if Bernadette and her family are okay with her eccentricities, and if her daughter is healthy and happy then why should they even think about getting involved?

Of course, it isn't as simple as that. Semple does such a good job of setting up the good guys and bad buys and then completely destroying those roles. As more emails or letters come to light, you realise that something that seemed selfish perhaps wasn't so selfish. Or maybe that event was actually a lot more one-sided than young Bee's recollection is. Some people remain awful (some are so, so awful*) but none of it is black and white. There are reasons people act the way they do, or act out the way they do and it's so refreshingly real.

But (and this is a little but) I found the ending a little silly. And actually, when you consider that Semple used to write for Arrested Development it's almost to be expected - those shows didn't exactly have a realistic wrap up each week. But while it soured the story for me a little, it wasn't nearly enough to really make me feel any less warm and fuzzy about it. Even Semple being mean to Canada** wasn't enough to make me turn against her and her poppy bright book.

This has been pretty vague, but everyone else (*ahem* Alley and Laura) has already said so much, so well plus I don't want to give away any little details which might temper your view when you decide to read it (which you're going to do right? Of course you are!). But just know this little book about family is the perfect proof that there is always two sides to every story, but more often than not there are actually 5 or 6 or 7 hidden sides that we rarely find out about. So do read it, okay?

*Guys, I NEED to discuss Bee's dad and Soo-Lin. How did you feel about that whole scenario and how it was laid out?

**Don't worry Canada, I've got your back.


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