Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

15790857Blurb: Bernadette Fox has vanished.

When her daughter Bee claims a family trip to Antarctica as a reward for perfect grades, Bernadette, a fiercely intelligent shut-in, throws herself into preparations for the trip. But worn down by years of trying to live the Seattle life she never wanted, Ms. Fox is on the brink of a meltdown. And after a school fundraiser goes disastrously awry at her hands, she disappears, leaving her family to pick up the pieces.

Which is exactly what Bee does, weaving together an elaborate web of emails, invoices, and school memos that reveals a secret past Bernadette has been hiding for decades. Where’d You Go Bernadette is an ingenious and unabashedly entertaining novel about a family coming to terms with who they are, and the power of a daughter’s love for her mother.

Review:My younger cousin used to have a game called Story Cubes. It was a set of dice with various images on each side. You rolled them, collected six images, and then constructed a narrative that referenced each image. With only 20 seconds to weave a bee, a skyscraper, a cauldron, a train crash, a door, and an eye into a comprehensive story, the tales were always zany.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette seems inspired by an adult supersize set of Story Cubes. Semple throws together a trip to Antarctica, environmental architecture, expensive prep school helicopter parents, Microsoft company dynamics, Seattle stereotypes, and family dysfunction, adds a pinch of (attempted) humor, and expects a decent story to emerge. But none ever does. It’s simply scattered.

Adding to the book’s scattered feeling is the way it’s constructed. Bernadette disappears and her daughter Bee recounts the events leading up to the event. But Bee doesn’t tell a straight narrative. Instead she reconstructs Bernadette’s life using emails, newspaper articles, police records, and handwritten notes. It jumps from character to character, from plotline to plotline, so I never found my place in the text. Reading this novel was like crossing the Drake Passage during especially stormy weather: I was violently thrown back and forth until I just wanted it to end.

Bernadette is a humor novel. My writing professor says that comedic writing is all about exaggeration. You must take a funny element and stretch it to its limits. These characters are certainly exaggerated, but I don’t think Semple pushed them far enough. She redeems a previously awful character and at the end, she tries to make her main characters sympathetic. It can’t be both ways. They must be either horrible, extreme caricatures or fully realized characters—never both. I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette to laugh, but it only made me cringe.

2 out of 5 stars

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