I just spent a week on the beach and so, of course, arrived in Mexico armed with seven books. The first one I pulled out was the one I’ve been recognizing in the hands of many subway riders over the last few months: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I’d been reluctant to read it for a while because I conflated it with Chris Beha’s What Ever Happened to Sophie Wilder? because of the semi-similar titles and the fact that, I think, they came out around the same time. When it clicked that they were different books, I purchased it just in time for the trip.
It was truly the ideal beach read. Lots of reviews of this book mention it being laugh-out-loud funny and although I never laughed out loud (do I ever? I only remember once, in To Kill a Mockingbird, at the line: “Pass the damn ham.”) I was entertained totally and completely throughout the entire book. It starts off with the dead-on, progressive-school report card (the grades one can achieve at the Galer School are Surpasses Excellence, Achieves Excellence, or Working Toward Excellence) for an eighth grader named Bee, the sort-of narrator of the novel. I say “sort-of narrator” because while some of the book is in Bee’s voice, most of it is not, and is instead a compilation of emails, letters, Artforum articles, intervention-transcriptions, and other kinds of written ephemera. I was a little worried for a while that the form was going to wind up being arbitrary, but even before Semple revealed why it wasn’t, I’d given up that fear to the fun of the book. There was a reason for all of it and although it was a little far-fetched, it worked well-enough to justify the invention.
Because the documents came from so many different sources, there were a lot of different voices in the book and all of them were unique and possessing of their own distinct characteristics. Bee’s parents, the titular Bernadette–a wacky former-architect turned hysterical misanthrope–and Eglin–Microsoft genius and presenter of the fourth most-watched TED-talk of all time, the super-angry mother of one of Bee’s classmates, Audrey, another mother and Microsoft employee, an architecture student, and more. Years earlier, Bernadette fled LA for Seattle because of an unnamed disaster, the kind of disaster that, once named, seemed destined to disappoint the reader–what could be so awful it would drive someone from their former life while, at the same time, being original?– but it didn’t. I think that was the biggest success of the book–Bernadette’s background, once revealed, paid off. It was genius.
The novel skewers upper-middle-class over-involved parents, the tech industry, Seattle in general, and much more, but it doesn’t feel particularly mean-spirited (but maybe I think that because I’m not a parent, a techy, or a Seattle-resident). At the end of the book, the action switches to ANTARCTICA. There are tons of outrageous set-ups and they all, in my opinion, succeed.
This isn’t a heavy-weight work of literature, but it isn’t what most people think of as a beach-read either (just me). It is light and quick and filled with plot and quirk, but the writing is sharp–nothing is redundant or lazy. Check it out (if you haven’t already)!