Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Where'd You Go, Bernadette (Maria Semple)
Bernadette is a MacArthur "genius" grant winner, known for her innovative architecture. A "horrible event" happens, one which devastates Bernadette and drives her to Seattle. Eventually, she and her husband (who becomes a big-shot at Microsoft) have a daughter, Bee (real name Balakrishna). Bernadette suffers from a severe set of social anxieties and withdraws further and further from the real world, eventually going to the extreme of hiring a "virtual assistant" from India to coordinate everything that might require Bernadette to interact with other people, including the plans for a trip to Antarctica with her family.
This book straddles the line between "novel" and "humor novel", and this is problematic. If it's a novel, I'm not necessarily expecting it to be funny, but if it's a humor novel, then obviously I am expecting to be at least chuckling pretty frequently. Without a doubt, the best part of this book is Bernadette. She is devastatingly funny, throwing out "mean" comments that often come off as funny. My favorite (look, I did write something down to use in this post! yay!): "So why did I switch schools? The other good schools I could have sent Bee to... well, to get to them, I'd have to drive past a Buca di Beppo. I hated my life enough without having to drive past a Buca di Beppo four times a day." The other characters are pretty amusing, too, but Bernadette runs circles around them with her biting sarcasm.
There are two problems with the jokes: 1) some of them feel pretty inside-jokey for people who live in Seattle (and I do not, therefore I didn't get it) and 2) much of the humor disappears when Bernadette does. To take your funniest character out of the book does not mean that the book will fall apart (and it certainly doesn't!), but it's a big risk that has the potential to shift the mood of the book (which it does). The book just isn't as funny once Bernadette is gone, which is a shame: Semple superbly straddles the funny and the serious so excellently in the first half of the novel. Watching the book lose its comic tone is a disappointment.
Nonetheless, Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a vibrant novel filled with characters that are simultaneously unique and recognizable. With a first half packed with laughs and a second half that manages to be heartwarming without being sickening, I strongly recommend it.
My rating: 4/5
Where'd You Go, Bernadette on Goodreads
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