Monday, January 21, 2013
Book Review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette
When I attended the selection meeting, I was gushing over how funny (laugh-out-loud funny - really!) the book was. I was about 150 pages into the book and was finding it delightful. I wished that I could bring to mind several of the bits where I literally snorted, but couldn't. My description must have hooked them, though, because it became the February book for our selections.
I must say, I enjoyed the first half of this book so much more than the second half. By the second half, with the introduction of Bernadette's husband's affair, the book took on more of a ludicrous tone and lost some of its genuine humor. I don't know if it is just that the affair didn't sit well with me (or even seem logical, given her husband's supportive nature) or that the dialogue (mainly, epistolary - one of my favorite kinds of books) no longer rang true, but I was less impressed with the second half of the book.
Bernadette Fox is a very accomplished mother who has retreated from life to raise her daughter, Bee. Her husband is an equally accomplished executive with Microsoft and is fiercely busy with his job. Bee secures a stellar report card and requests a family trip to Antarctica as her reward. Bernadette has a difficult time with living in Seattle, interacting with the overzealous mothers at her daughter's school, and the prospect of a trip to Antarctica. On top of that, her neighbor insists on having Bernadette's blackberry vines removed, which leads to a dreadful conclusion and more friction. Bernadette is on the verge of a break-down and her husband is seeking an intervention, when she suddenly disappears. Bee is left to unravel her disappearance based on correspondence and other evidence to determine where her mother might have gone.
Bernadette was a completely engaging character. She is hilarious in her scorn for her present location and for the "gnats" she must deal with at her daughter's school. The pieces begin to fit together to explain what has driven Bernadette to disappear. I think Maria Semple did an excellent job creating likeable characters with tremendous wit and sharp intelligence. Her social satire was dead-on. Plus, I appreciated her insistance that a creative person must be actively engaged in creating in order to remain true to themselves and even not become a "menace to society."
The story did drive the reader along with the desire to figure out where Bernadette has gone (excellent title). It was highly readable. I would read it again just for the laughter the first sections provoked, but still say the last half wasn't as enjoyable. Still, if you're up for some humor and a bit of a far-fetched story, then this is a delightfully funny read. I agree with the back cover when it declares this book to be "an ingenious and unabashedly entertaining novel about a family coming to terms with who they are. It is also a riotous satire of privilege and an unsentimental but powerful story of a daughter's unflinching love for her imperfect mother." I also agree with Jonathan Evison who writes, "Brilliant, hilarious, endlessly inventive, and compulsively readable, Where'd You Go, Bernadette grabs you by the collar and never lets go. Semple is ... an astute social critic!"