Saturday, December 15, 2012

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

I may be in the minority, but I'd rate this about 3.5 stars if I could.

In her younger days, Bernadette Fox was a revolutionary architect. When issues arise with her famed creation, she and her computer whiz husband, Elgin, flee to Seattle, where he begins a career at Microsoft (and he gave the fourth most watched TED Talk of all time). Yet Bernadette quickly becomes disillusioned with Seattle life, and after several miscarriages, focuses all of her attention on their daughter, Bee, while Elgin rises through Microsoft's ranks, spearheading a major project.

By the time Bee turns 15 and is ready to head to high school, Bernadette has become nearly agoraphobic, loathing every encounter with her neighbors (whom she refers to as "gnats"), and avoiding leaving the house as much as possible. She's even hired a virtual assistant from India, Manjula, to whom she entrusts every purchase and responsibility. But when Bee aces her report card and wishes to claim her promised reward—a family trip to Anarctica—Bernadette starts spiraling out of control. And as the extent of her problems—not all of which are her fault—is discovered, she disappears.

Where'd You Go Bernadette is Bee's attempt to track her mother's whereabouts. She compiles emails, official documents, confidential communications, and other memos, which helps shed light on Bernadette's tumultuous history and the challenges she encountered, and how fiercely she loved her daughter. And some interesting and surprising discoveries are made along the way.

Maria Semple is a former television writer for programs such as Arrested Development and Mad About You, and I think she tried to give this book the same madcap, farcical tone. I didn't think the book was all that funny most of the time; in fact, I found so many of the characters so unsympathetic (although not all of those early assumptions proved true) that I didn't understand why I had to keep seeing their points of view. But as the book uncovered more of Bernadette's life, I started enjoying it more, because it lessened its efforts to be precociously funny.

This is definitely an amusing and ultimately heartfelt read, and the way Semple laid out the story was very unique. If you like stories that don't necessarily follow a linear (or completely narrative) form, this may be a hit for you.

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