02 April 2014

Books: Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (2013)

“Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom. Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic. “

The book is told in a unusual format, what’s called a “epistolary.” Basically, it unfolds through masses of email messages, along with chunks of official documents and (not so) secret correspondences (I’ve encountered this style one time before, in Steve Kluger’s brilliantly hilarious 1998 novel Last Days of Summer).  While it may distract some folks, the book gets going very quickly and any reader will find themselves wrapped up in the narrative.

One of the biggest strengths of Where'd You Go, Bernadette is that it’s often weird, funny and sometimes serious all at the time. And because author Maria Semple's background is in television comedy (she wrote for Arrested Development) her zingers are spot on, as she gets some great digs at Seattle, Canadians, self-help culture and the our odd private school system ,“a place where compassion, academics and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet,” and where there are only three grades: S for “Surpasses Excellence,” A for “Achieves Excellence” and W for “Working Towards Excellence.” 

The sad part is, as much as Semple pokes fun at it, somewhere this is going on.

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