Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? - Maria Semple - Guest review

Bernadette is a complex woman still trying to come to terms with thwarted hopes and dreams from twenty years earlier.  Avoiding contact with anyone outside her immediate family (husband Elgin and her fourteen-year-old daughter Bee), she conducts her life almost entirely via the internet, even outsourcing most of her personal admin to a virtual PA based in India.  When her life appears to spiral increasingly out of control, she suddenly vanishes and it is left to the bright and precocious Bee to piece together the reasons for her disappearance and discover where she might have gone.  Along the way, several of those around Bernadette, including her husband Elgin and her neighbour and nemesis Audrey Griffin, have to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves in the process of learning to understand Bernadette and why she has come to shun the world.  As Bee says, "Just because you think you can't ever know everything about another person, it doesn't mean you can't try."  

This a very lively read that it's impossible not to devour in huge chunks.  Much of the narrative consists of emails, faxes, memos and blog entries between the various characters, as well as conventional narrative by Bee; this use of multiple viewpoints is a terrific shorthand way of giving insight into the different characters, and filling in details that Bee herself clearly couldn't be privy to.  At the same time, the technique of skipping at short intervals from one viewpoint to another means the book trips along at a very brisk and breezy pace, particularly through the first two-thirds of the book in which Bernadette's life lurches from one comic disaster to another giving rise to some very funny scenes, sometimes verging on slapstick, which reflect the mounting chaos and near hysteria felt by Bernadette.  However, there are darker strands running through the novel: Bernadette is clearly not a woman who is in control of her life, and by the time she does her apparently miraculous vanishing act, it seems she has almost lost her sanity. Equally, the effect of her disappearance on her husband and daughter is naturally devastating, and the high comedy of the early chapters gives way towards the end of the book to a more sober and reflective narrative.  For the most part I felt that Semple does a terrific job of steering the narrative carefully between comedy and tragedy, keeping the overall tone witty and bright, but just at times the darker strands show through quite starkly, like Antarctic rock through the snow.

One aspect of the book that didn't sit altogether comfortably with me was the trenchant satire directed at Seattle, and Seattle's biggest corporate entity, Microsoft.  While the digs at consumerism and at aspirational and ultra-competitive "hockey-mom" mothers (or gnats as Bernadette calls them) were spot on (as I can testify from personal experience of American schools) and highly amusing, I did find myself baulking occasionally at the sharpness of Semple's attacks on Seattle generally: a city whose designers "never met a beautiful view they didn't block with a twenty-storey old folk's home with zero architectural integrity.... [a city] overrun with runaways, drug addicts and bums...", a city where there are just two hairstyles, "short gray hair and long gray hair".  Microsoft comes in for similar attacks on its ethics and corporate style, and although the satire is laced with a large dose of humour, I did begin to wonder how many fans the book will find either in Seattle or among Microsoft employees!

Having said that, though, I neither live in Seattle nor work for Microsoft so despite feeling slightly uncomfortable at times for people who do, I nevertheless found the book an extremely enjoyable read overall and an impressive debut novel: lively, witty, great fun and very engaging. I think Maria Semple could be the new Marina Lewycka and I'll be watching out for her next book with great interest. 

Reviewed by Penny Tattersall - guest reviewer

Many thanks to Penny for writing this lovely, perceptive guest review for The Little Reader Library. 

'Where'd You Go, Bernadette?' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson

1 comment:

  1. I heard Maria Semple on NPR so I looked up the book -- was I glad I did! It was funny, interesting and filled with interesting characters. Now if I could only find another book so charming!

    Zaira Lynn (Seattle IT Consulting)


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