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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

When you read a lot of fiction it can be easy to get jaded and bored, and forget why you even read so much of it in the first place. The reason is because occasionally, no matter how rarely, you come across a work of magic such as Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

The novel, a contemporary example of the epistolary form, composed mainly of emails and other primary documents, is a wonder. Set mostly in Seattle, the story contains multitudes. At its heart, it is about the relationship a person has with their own mind and the struggle to communicate with other people. But that makes it sound pretentious. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is an exuberant, gripping, book that grabs you and makes you care for the characters and worry about them. It’s been a while since I found myself so invested in the futures of fictional characters.

Our main character, and the compiler of the documents which form the text, is Bee Branch, fifteen-year-old prodigy and daughter of Elgin Branch, a bigshot at Microsoft, and Bernadette Fox, a former architect losing her grip on sanity. Bee shares with us the story of her mother’s plight as a disaffected person struggling with even the most basic social interactions. Bernadette’s loathing of Seattle, of the other parents at Bee’s private school, and the pointlessness of everyday life have led her to live mostly as a recluse, conducting most of her affairs with the help of an online personal assistant.

As the novel gets underway, Bee is leveraging her perfect grades to guilt trip her parents into taking her on a trip to Antarctica. The dread of taking a long sea voyage on rough waters, in close confinement with other people, is the tipping point for Bernadette, who begins behaving more and more erratically, provoking pernicious gossip among the parents at Bee’s school. Two of these parents, Audrey Griffin and Soo-Lin Lee-Segal, trade jokes at Bernadette’s expense while they serve as queen bees of the private school’s parent set. Semple’s narrative eventually envelops both of them as well, in ways that are sympathetic and understanding.

There’s a lot going on in Where’d You Go, Bernadette? but Semple handles it all so gracefully that the whole thing seems quite natural. Semple is an agile mimic and deftly paces the revelations that make her novel so gripping. The truths about Bernadette’s past failures and of Bee’s birth are moving and real.

This is a remarkable novel that will delight and devastate all but the most heartless of readers.

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