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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review of WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple


Further to my discussion about books about nasty women on April 27, here’s my last review of one of those books:  Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple:

2 Stars
If this book were not required reading for a book club, I would not have read it. Its cover clearly suggests shallow Chick Lit and its ungrammatical title - with its missing question mark - implies frivolousness. Despite the adage about not judging a book by its cover (and title, I might add), this time first impressions were not wrong.

Bernadette Fox is a renowned architect who has stopped working and is gradually retreating from the outside world, going so far as to hire a virtual assistant to minimize her contact with people. Then she disappears. Her teenaged daughter, Bee Branch, compiles a collection of communication from the time shortly before Bernadette’s disappearance in order to try and understand her mother and the reasons for her behaviour.

In terms of structure, this is a modern epistolary novel consisting of emails, official documents, a magazine article, and secret correspondence. This format with its many and mostly short entries makes for a quick read. Unfortunately, the author cheats and resorts to traditional expository narration when the limitations of her chosen structure prove to be too restricting. If a narrative structure isn’t sustainable, perhaps it is not the best choice.

According to the book jacket, this book is a “riotous satire of privilege.” I take exception to the adjective; parts are funny but certainly not unrestrainedly hilarious. There is satire of the shallowness of the wealthy, but the satire is itself shallow. The observations are ones that would be used on sitcoms to get a laugh; I prefer satire to have more bite. The targets of the rants (e.g. poor city planning, the self-help movement, politically-correct private schools, status-conscious parents) are not original either; they have been ridiculed before and more effectively too. And the focus on Seattle is also off-putting.

I found it difficult to relate to or like the characters. Though Bernadette is supposedly a genius, there is little evidence of her exceptional intelligence. Her rants offer no profound insights. She isolates herself and so becomes obsessed with her pet peeves about which she constantly whines. She is a quirky character and that’s fine, but is it logical that a person who uses email all the time would suddenly insist on writing a letter despite the fact that she is in a place that she herself admits has internet that is faster than she has ever seen. But then everyone else seems quirky too. Her husband, Elgin Branch, is certainly eccentric and even Bee is not a typical teenager. Not only does Bee not have a cell phone and has not been “corrupted by fashion and pop culture,” she seems largely unaffected when she learns about an extramarital affair. All that incessant quirkiness just becomes annoying.

The ending is just too tidy – a sitcom ending where everything is nicely resolved in the end. Everyone has an epiphany and sees the error of his/her ways. Even a character who has been reviled throughout becomes an angel.

This book is very readable because it requires little thought. For me, there is just too much fluff and not enough substance. I found myself not caring where Bernadette went.