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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Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

16131077Blurb:

THE GIRL WHO WOULDN’T DIE HUNTS THE KILLER WHO SHOULDN’T EXIST.

Harper Curtis is a killer who stepped out of the past. Kirby Mazrachi is the girl who was never meant to have a future.

Kirby is the last shining girl, one of the bright young women, burning with potential, whose lives Harper is destined to snuff out after he stumbles on a House in Depression-era Chicago that opens on to other times.

At the urging of the House, Harper inserts himself into the lives of the shining girls, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He’s the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable-until one of his victims survives.

Determined to bring her would-be killer to justice, Kirby joins the Chicago Sun-Times to work with the ex-homicide reporter, Dan Velasquez, who covered her case. Soon Kirby finds herself closing in on the impossible truth . . .

THE SHINING GIRLS is a masterful twist on the serial killer tale: a violent quantum leap featuring a memorable and appealing heroine in pursuit of a deadly criminal.

Review:

This book is weird. The climax features a one-sided snowball fight. And it’s about a time-traveling serial killer. It’s weird. It’s also not very good.

The Shining Girls is a book of parts, and some parts work, some parts don’t. Each chapter focuses on a person and a time. Harper, the time-traveling serial killer, spends most of his chapters in the Great Depression Era, plotting escapades to the future to kill “shining girls.” The other main character is Kirby, a shining girl from the early 90s who survives Harper’s homicide attempt. She partners with Dan—a loveable Chicago Sun-Times reporter who was my favorite character—to catch her killer. If a chapter title read Kirby 24 June 1992, I would read with gusto. If a chapter title read Harper 18 January 1932, I’d groan and settle in for an unenjoyable chapter. It’s problematic when you don’t want to read any of the antagonist’s boring, tedious, and repetitive chapters since they amount to more than half the book.

I picked this book up after hearing the phrase “time traveling serial killer.” But Lauren Beukes doesn’t sufficiently develop either of these ideas. The time travel seems like a gimmick. Harper finds a House with a Room full of objects and names of shining girls he will kill decades in the future. He can walk out of this House into a different time to hunt these women. I don’t really understand the House or the rules of time traveling here. Harper often loops his own narrative, hopping from a later time to an earlier time with seemingly no consequences. Structurally, the time traveling is difficult to follow. As I said, each chapter is headed with the character’s name and the date, but when I’m reading fast and the chapters are short, I lose track of “when” I am in the text. The intricacies of Harper’s sojourns back and forth through Chicago were lost on me. And since we jump from past to future, events are spoiled long before they ever happen. Beukes could have used this foreknowledge to create great dramatic irony and tension, but the way she used it only lessened my appreciation of the narrative. I knew what was going to happen, but I wasn’t pushed to fear what was going to happen. A linear narrative would not have worked for this story, but—if this makes any sense—I would have appreciated a more linear non-linear story.

As a serial killer story, it fails as well. Why do I read murder novels? To (attempt to) understand a killer’s motivations. To admire the tenacity of a victim. Or to empathize with the devastation of a victim. To figure out whodunit. Yet all of that was absent here. For the excess of Harper chapters I suffered through, I still don’t understand him as a person. Unlike many popular serial killers, Harper is neither charming nor horrifying; he merely kills. Kirby is a likeable protagonist, but her motivation to find her killer is the most striking aspect of her character. Not much else defines her. And while this story is a mystery to Kirby, it is never a mystery to the reader who knows the killer and his secrets from the first page.

One thing that impressed me about The Shining Girls was Beukes’s research. Chicago is an important part of this novel. The time and characters may change, but Chicago remains constant. The research is impeccably detailed and thus, Chicago breathes with life. But as I’ve noticed with other historical novels, especially those set in bright American metropolises during sumptuous eras, the author can become indulgent with the depth of her research. There’s too much here. It’s too referential. Often it feels like a famous Chicago landmark is alluded to merely because the author had seen it in her research. And despite all the research, I’m surprised by the way the dates are written in the chapter headings. Perhaps it’s an editorial error, but the dates are written in the date/month/year format—e.g., 1 July 1989—even though this book is the American edition and it is set entirely in America. Even in the non-American editions, it would be more authentic to use our admittedly backward month/date/year format.

Thematically, The Shining Girls shines a little brighter. Harper’s pursuit of “shining girls” is a good metaphor for the way a patriarchal society punishes girls with promise, wanting to push them back to their “proper” place. And the idea of a House that dictates who Harper will kill years into the future well represents the idea of a true psychopath. Once Harper finds the House, he appears to have no control over himself. Once a psychopath begins to kill, perhaps he has no control over himself. Harper was meant to kill, is meant to kill, will always be meant to kill. He is a killer in every iteration of time and space.

I’ve written a lot about a book I didn’t really like. If you want Chicago and history and murders, read The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson instead. 1. it happened in real life 2. it has Ferris Wheels.

2 out of 5 stars