Arts, Books — October 9, 2012 10:27 am

Where’d You Go, Bernadette; or, The Real Housewives of Microsoft County

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Finally! I have a super fun book for you guys. Super fun! I would say it’s great “summer reading,” but summer has already passed so maybe that isn’t the best selling point. Unless you’re in Southern California and you’re still spending your afternoons by the pool because, no matter how much you may want to start wearing your cardigans, it’s still like 80 degrees outside. Or because gas is almost $5 a gallon these days and you can’t afford to go anywhere anyway. Oh, the trials and tribulations of living in the Golden State….

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Well, regardless of where you are and what the weather’s like, I highly recommend you find a copy of Maria Semple’s latest novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette(2012). It’s kind of young adult-ish, but it was recommended to me by a co-worker who is not in my young adult book club, and who writes primarily sci-fi/fantasy fiction, so trust me when I say that it’s just all around enjoyable. That being said, I would definitely recommend this to the right high school student, too. The ‘narrator’ is high school-age, and the writing is simple enough for an adolescent to follow (easily, I would think) but mysterious enough to hold their interest.

I put “narrator” in quotes because it needs to be qualified. This book is really only partially narrated. Most of the time, what you’re reading are documents (letters, emails, official records)–kind of like primary sources–that the narrator, Bee, has collected in order to tell her family’s story. Most specifically, the story of the disappearance of her mother, Bernadette. The format is so clever that it captured my interest right away. In fact, the sections where Bee steps in to speak in real-time were almost disappointing. They were helpful in filling in some of the information gaps, but I found the other characters’ (often catty) voices much more intriguing. Plus, just think about how much preparatory work Semple must have done to create those documents and make them believable. As my co-worker who lent me the book said, she must have written an entire book before the book–created a world in which those emails and letters and reports were composed, simply so that she could remove them from their context and piece them together one by one in a way that gives the reader a journey to go on, a mystery to solve, alongside the daughter. Very impressive.

You’ll also find this book of particular interest if you’re from Seattle (it takes place there, mostly), have any experience with the Microsoft corporate culture (I don’t, so please tell me how accurate it is!), and/or have dealt intimately with private schools in any location. Working at a private school myself, I can testify that Semple is a master at communicating subtext in the interactions of these families who find themselves part of the same community though not necessarily with shared ideas of what it means to be successful or proper. She exemplifies the old writing rule, “Show, don’t tell,” with the emails that pass back and forth between parents and how they differ from what the people actually say to each other face-to-face. Her characterizations are really quite cutting. It’s like watching reality TV, only your brain is actually being stimulated because you’re reading. The best!

When I was first loaned the book, I thought that Semple’s name sounded familiar but I failed to check out her book jacket bio (unusual for me) before I became wrapped up in the story, so it slipped my mind for a while. Eventually, about ¾ of the way through, a lull in the action left me a little distracted and I found this: Semple has written for Mad About You (meh), Ellen (okay…), SNL (seriously?), and…wait for it…Arrested Development (say WHAT?!)  That’s right. You want to read it now, don’t you? I knew there had to be a reason why she imagined disfunction so well and with so much hilarity. She’s a talent, I tell ya.

If you’re anything like me, you’re very wary of books that have just come out within the last sixth months and have already garnered book jacket-praise from the likes of Jonathan Franzen. You’re also wary of people who have forged careers in the entertainment business in one regard and now fancy themselves authors of worthwhile reads because, hey, it’s what all the cool kids are doing these days. Semple’s book has been something of a hit, and she has written for some damn good shows (okay, at least one damn good show) but count not these things against her. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is an original, well-told, witty story that deserves to be picked up when you have an itch for something fun. Two thumbs up!


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