Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple had a lot of buzz when it came out a few months ago, so I put it on my to-read list. The short version of my review is that I was totally engrossed in this book as I was reading it. It was all set up as a mystery. Bernadette goes missing and her daughter has created this book as a result of her work piecing everything together. However, as much as I loved the novel while I was reading it, I was ultimately disappointed in the ending.
That's the quick review, here are the details on the appeal (why you would read it or not) with a little bit of plot details.
The novel is set up in a mostly epistolary style. Bernadette's precocious 8th grade daughter Bee is gathering the documents to understand why her mom disappeared and figure out where she went. This adds two interesting things to the story. First, we have the story of a family told in a caper style format. Note the word caper. That denotes not just the investigative elements but the humor here. Second, we have a precocious narrator who is not annoying. She only takes the narration for small portions of the entire story. Mostly, she is presenting the emails, documents, letters, and articles to us.
This boils down to a great execution of a complex style by Semple. This could have been a disaster, but instead, it all worked perfectly. People who normally avoid overly precocious narrators, will not be annoyed by Bee, and what could have been another wacky family story, comes off as fresh and original with the investigation's suspense and the quirkiness of the people involved both being positively enhanced by the frame.
Speaking of quirkiness, you will love this book for the characters. Bernadette comes alive through her emails, letters, and the articles about her amazing career as an architect. Elgin, her husband, is endearing in his incompetence, and Bee, mentioned above, is realistic in her obsession to find her mother.
One customer review in Amazon mentioned that the truth is complicated. That's another things I liked about this book. Yes it is a domestic comedy at times, and even a bit of a tear jerker at others. but the story and the characters are not one dimensional. They have complicated back stories and personalities that felt real. The story could have been filled with stereotypes-- the mean moms at school, the misunderstood mother, the computer genius--but it is not. It is as rich and complex as life's real problems truly are; well maybe a little bit exaggerated since Bernadette is an actual genius award winner and Elgin, her husband, is a computer programming superstar. But even that is down played when it comes to the plot. The Fox family, and even the secondary characters, are fleshed out and act and react like real people, not characters.
The setting is also important here as Semple skewers Seattle, its inhabitants, its coffee and Microsoft culture, and the private school system. Semple's biting wit is slightly exaggerated but mostly true. She also includes an amusing secondary storyline which satirizes the green building trend.
However, like when I read The City and the City by China Mieville awhile back, a complete reading of Where'd You Go Bernadette made me question whether or not early reviewers read the entire book. The reviews universally loved this book. I agree that this is a 5 star book until you get to the last letter and final pages of the novel, and then it turns into a 3-3.5 star book. I was so torn about my absolute adoration for this book until the final pages that I am making a friend with similar reading tastes read it to see if she agrees.
My problem is not that the ending is terrible. Actually it is fine and serviceable. But the entire book was so fresh, engaging, and original, that the serviceable ending was disappointing. I am still leaning toward this book being worth a read because of all the reasons I listed above. In fact, it would be a great read for the holiday season. It has some meat to it but the epistolary style allows you to pick it up and put it down easily. It is a fast, entertaining read, and since most of it takes place in the Fall leading up to and through the holidays, it is also a timely read.
Three Words That Describe This Book: epistolary, caper, character centered
Readalikes: If you liked the epistolary style and tone, you should try Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn In this epistolary novel, a young girl named Ella, lives on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of North Carolina. The island is named for Nevin Nollop, the author of the famous sentence “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” When the local government begins banning letters of the alphabet as they fall off of Nollop’s memorial statue, Ella begins to fight for her community’s freedom of expression. Ella does what she can, but with each falling letter it becomes more difficult for her to communicate.
The intricate family tangle and comedy of manners aspects also reminded by of The Red House by Mark Haddon (review and details coming next week).
This book reminded me of Carl Hiaasen only in Seattle instead of Florida.
The entire book has an investigative frame without really being a true mystery. If you enjoyed that part of it, I would also suggest The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart. Read my full review here for more details. In this case, the main characters have lost a child, but the reader gets the full story in bits and pieces. The humorous tone is similar. Also, both stories acknowledge that the truth is complicated.
Finally, another 2012 release that has a similar feel is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Here is the plot summary from NoveList:
Harold Fry is convinced that he must deliver a letter to an old love in order to save her, meeting various characters along the way and reminiscing about the events of his past and people he has known, as he tries to find peace and acceptance.It appears to also be amusing, heart warming engaging and off beat. I am putting it on my to-read list.