Where’d You Go, Bernadette

20 Jul

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a book I just read. Here are some thoughts about it.

I read the book after Julia Turner endorsed it on the previously-recommended Culture Gabfest podcast. It’s one of those light “beach read” kind of books. Ms. Turner assured me that it was neither a young adult novel nor chick lit. Imagine my horror, then, when I went to the library to check it out. It was located in the TEEN ZONE. This is the place that the library tries to make cool and hip, not realizing that the only kids who think the TEEN ZONE is cool and hip are the kids who would go to the library no matter how uncool or unhip it was. Try a better marketing strategy, libraries.

So I picked up the book. My trepidation was increased when I saw the cover, a stylized drawing of a woman with huge sunglasses. I always associate huge sunglasses with Joan Didion. Most people probably have a different association. Anyway, the book looked very young adult and very chick lit. Then I looked more closely. There was a blurb on the cover from none other than Jonathan Franzen. Now, I was going to check out and read the book regardless, but Mr. Franzen is a pretty good get as far as blurbs go. I was reassured.

I recommend Where’d You Go, Bernadette. It was a pretty breezy read. Highly engaging. A lot of reviews talked about how it was hilarious or uproarious or whatever. I didn’t find it to be that, really. Witty might be a better adjective. The author is Maria Semple, who has a background as a sitcom writer. Some forgettable 90’s stuff and Arrested Development. The third season, but still. That’s a pretty good job for a comedy writer to have on a résumé.

The most interesting thing to me was the book’s format. The whole thing is made up of a series of emails, letters, notes, etc. exchanged between different characters in the book with periodic narration by Bernadette’s daughter Bee. Eventually, there’s a plot point wherein it’s explained how Bee got her hands on all of this various communication. That was an interesting way to do it. Although I guess it was necessary, given that Bee would regularly break in and give commentary based on the other fragments. The variously-sourced epistolary structure would have worked on its own without explanation, almost like an omniscient narrator situation. But I thought having Bee’s perspective definitely was what held things together.

Another structure note. Since Ms. Semple was a TV writer, and this is a pretty good story, I thought some about a prospective film adaptation vis-à-vis the novel’s structure. Showing everyone sitting at a keyboard typing their emails as a way to advance the story wouldn’t really work in a movie. I think the best way to do it would be to abandon the epistolary conceit and just treat it as a straightforward narrative. It’s a lot easier to play around with structure and conventions and try odd things in a book than a movie. Just another of the joys of reading.

The first half of the book is basically a group of highly unlikeable women sniping behind each others’ backs. That was kind of off-putting for a while. Like, was I supposed to be taking sides? Everyone just seemed very unpleasant. Things eventually progressed past that in a generally satisfying way, but that remains my largest complaint. The book is set in the world of the white upper class, full of private school nonsense and pointless rivalries that build out of stupid petty bullshit. That makes it hard to connect with anyone or, especially, to feel sympathy or empathy for anyone. It’s a fun story that I enjoyed reading, but Ms. Semple would have to go quite a bit deeper to make me actually care about any of her characters.

The climax of the story takes place on a cruise to Antarctica. I thought it worked pretty well. With 50 or so pages left, I thought I knew where things were going and then there was a pretty significant change in direction. I was disappointed when I saw what was happening, but Ms. Semple mostly pulled it off. I won’t spoil it. It’s not like reviewing current movies–probably unfair to expect people to have read random books that I write about.

The book is set in Seattle. I get the feeling that if I were familiar with Seattle, I would have been able to pull a lot more out of it. Lots of local references/jokes. I could tell from the context what Ms. Semple was going for, but when she talked about different neighborhoods, for example, I didn’t get that kind of smug insidery feeling that’s so great when you’re familiar with the setting of a piece of media. There’s a fine line there for writers between writing in a way that feels authentically from/of the setting and writing that feels like it’s using local detail as a substitute for actual insight. I thought Ms. Semple did a pretty good job. There was also a lot of stuff about Microsoft. I’m sure some of that was fictionalized (even beyond the obviously fictional parts) and I’m fine with that.

I mentioned the Antarctic cruise. I think I would like this kind of cruise. Maybe that’s crazy. Whales, penguins, endless ice, sounds kind of cool. Ms. Semple describes the landscape as having three horizontal bars: sky, ice, water. I thought that was a really cool image.

A big plot point was the existence of a swath of blackberry brambles on a hillside and their removal. I have a fair amount of blackberries in my yard. The bushes do, in fact, take over everything. I can see why people would want to get rid of them. On the other hand, I had fresh blackberries on my oatmeal today. They’re delicious. But the bushes are so thick and full of thorns that its hard to get to all of them. I think most of the berries will end up unpicked. A shame, that.

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