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

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Little, Brown and Company; 336 pages; $25.99)

 

Reading Maria Semple’s wickedly hilarious novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I couldn’t help but wonder is this the end of the traditional narrative?  Semple uses only emails, letters, journal articles, memos, receipts, TED talks, emergency room bills, FBI correspondence, and press releases to tell the bold story of a Seattle wife and mother, Bernadette, who disappears.  The ways in which Semple ties all these unusual forms together makes for highly entertaining and surprisingly compelling reading.  Semple does not need conventional narrative at all in Where’d You 

The hilarity begins when Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, an eighth-grader, receives her report card from the Galer Street School, “a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet.”  The school wants to build the self-esteems of its over-privileged students, meaning no numerical grades are given.  An “S” means the student “surpasses excellence.”  “A” denotes the child “achieves excellence.”  Finally, “W” tells parents the student is “working towards excellence.”   Bee scores straight-S’s.

Graduation is not far off.  Bee reminds her parents, Bernadette and Elgin, that they promised that, if she got straight-S’s the whole way through, she could have whatever she wanted.  Bee has decided she wants the family to take a trip to Antarctica.  Her parents say yes.

Taking this trip will be very difficult for Bernadette, as she suffers from agoraphobia.  She enlists the help of Manjula, an employee of Delhi Virtual Assistants International and Bernadette’s out-sourced personal assistant.  Bernadette often sees Manjula as more than just a business acquaintance, however; Bernadette thinks Manjula is her friend.  She even pours her heart out to Manjula in emails.  Manjula, though, prefers an arms-length approach.  In response to a long email from Bernadette, Manjula is polite but terse.

“It would be my pleasure to assist you with your family travel plans to Antarctica.  Attached please find the contract for moving forward on a full-time basis.  Where indicated, please include your bank routing number.  I look forward to our continued collaboration,” Manjula writes.  It is abundantly clear that Bernadette has never had her identity or credit card stolen.  Bernadette cares only that she is getting a deal.  Manjula costs seventy-five cents an hour; that is thirty dollars per week.  Bernadette will let her “friend” Manjula plan everything.

The truth is that Bernadette just doesn’t have any friends.  Because she does not like to be around people, Bernadette does not venture out much, if at all.  Furthermore, she feels so out of place in Seattle.  She previously lived in Los Angeles and felt more at home there.  Bernadette was not always damaged emotionally.  Slowly, Semple reveals what happened to Bernadette to affect her so much.  Bit by bit, the reader understands Bernadette more clearly.

Bernadette was a successful and much-lauded architect in LA: “Saint Bernadette: The Most Influential Architect You’ve Never Heard Of.”  She received a prestigious MacArthur grant and was achieving great success until she and Elgin had to leave LA very suddenly.

In Seattle, she is like a fish out of water.  Bernadette is just out of her element.  The moms at the Galer Street School, an institution built on community, compassion, and volunteerism, despise her.  Bernadette never helps with anything.  Except once.  And who can blame Bernadette for never helping again?

“Five years ago, there was an auction item listed in a brochure for the Galer Street School…It read, “CUSTOM TREE HOUSE: Third-grade parent Bernadette Fox will design a tree house for your child, supply all materials, and build it herself.”  No one placed a bid.  Have these parents never heard of Google?

Bernadette hates the other Galer Street moms so much that she refers to them as “gnats,” because “they’re annoying, but not so annoying that you actually want to spend valuable energy on them.”  Bernadette’s rants against them are utterly laugh-out-loud funny.

Then again, Bernadette is not that fond of her husband, Elgin, who works for Microsoft.  He is so beloved at the company that he is second only to Bill Gates himself.  Elgin is famous for giving the fourth most-watched TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) talk, his colleagues treat him like a rock star.  He is less than a rock star at home, that is for sure, as he is hardly ever there.

Bernadette and Bee are left alone together much of the time.  Their mother-daughter bond is strong.  That’s why, after Bernadette goes missing, that Bee takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance.  Bee sorts through all the emails, receipts, bills, invoices, articles, and the other mixed-media Semple provides to find her mother and takes us with her on an incredible, unexpected journey.

I will go so far as to say Where’d You Go, Bernadette surprised me.  Semple constructs a convincing plot, creates fully-imagined characters, and satirizes Seattle culture.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is perfect for our times.  We live in a world of truncated communication: tweets, status updates, emails, and text messages.  The way we correspond is changing.  Should fiction reflect this transformation?  Sometimes.  Is this the future of fiction?  No, but every once in a while, mixing it up is nice.  The art of the traditional narrative will never die, but I predict a growing niche for mixed-media (much like the growth of flash fiction in recent years).  It’s not for everybody, but I thoroughly enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette for its boldness and uniqueness.

The Author

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Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown; 432 pages; $25).

 

            “Let me set the scene,” to borrow a phrase from a character in Gillian Flynn’s third novel Gone Girl.  I normally do not read mysteries or thrillers; my exceptions are usually James Rollins and Steve Berry.  Most mysteries are not well-written, and I roll my eyes over what someone says or does.  I would rather read literature and fiction any day.  Another reason I stay away from mysteries is that I can usually guess the plot in the first few chapters.  Knowing what is coming simply takes the fun out of reading a so-called mystery.

I was reluctant to read Gone Girl, although I genuinely liked Flynn’s first novel Sharp Objects.  When I saw Gone Girl was about a wife who disappeared, my first thought was, “Hello, Scott Peterson.”  Been there, done that.  I was forgetting one crucial factor, however.  I had forgotten what a page-turner Flynn could produce and how nothing is simple in her world.

Nick and Amy Dunne have been married for exactly five years when Gone Girl begins.  In fact, the very day the book begins is their anniversary.  There will be no romantic candlelit dinners followed by an evening of dancing.  Amy disappears.  Not surprisingly, the police focus on Nick.

And Nick is all too aware of this fact: “Everyone knows it’s always the husband, so why can’t they just say it: We suspect you because you are the husband, and it’s always the husband.  Just watch Dateline.”

The reader has no choice but to suspect Nick, too.  He loved her once, deeply, but things have changed.  They both lost their jobs and relocated to Nick’s hometown from New York City when his mother became ill.  Money problems weigh heavily on them.  In short, they were having trouble and were far from being a happy couple.

When Nick thinks of his wife, oddly, he “always” thinks “of her head,” specifically the back of her head.  That does not bode well for Amy’s well-being, that’s for sure.

Yet Nick proclaims his innocence.  I was skeptical, especially when he reveals he has told the police five lies, all within the first few minutes of meeting with investigators.  His twin sister, Go (short for Margo), confirms that Nick would “lie, cheat, and steal” and even kill all “to convince people” he’s a good guy.  Nick, we soon learn, is an unreliable narrator.  Nothing he says can be trusted.  He has no qualms whatsoever about lying, and he’s good at it–so good it’s scary.

Flynn takes us on many twists and turns throughout this story that I literally could not put the book down nor could I catch my breath.  Gone Girl is a psychological thriller.  Just when you think Nick is the culprit, Flynn throws us a curve ball by introducing Diary Amy.  We meet Amy, but only through her diary entries.  Through her eyes, Nick becomes a deeply sinister figure.  But can we trust Diary Amy?

Amy loves “mind games” and creates a treasure hunt for Nick every year on their anniversary.  She gives him clues to follow.  Before Amy went missing, she wrote the clues for this year.  As Flynn shows us more and more of Amy’s diary entries, one cannot help but notice the different stories Nick and Amy are telling.  Amy may be unreliable, too; she may lie just as much as Nick does.  The dilemma is who to believe.  The trick is that both may be lying.

Amy is Flynn’s most intriguing character.  Her parents wrote a series of books for children which were quite popular in the 1980s called “Amazing Amy.”  The little girl in the books looked just like Amy; she was Amy, only better.  There was always a moral in each and usually taken from an actual instance in the real Amy’s life.  The real Amy did the opposite, though, of what “Amazing Amy” did.  Her parents, thought real Amy, did it to teach her a lesson.

Kids loved to read the stories.  So did a few freaks, like a girl Amy knew in school who began dressing and even acting like Amy.  She went so far as to push Amy down the stairs.  Then, there was the guy Amy dated who took their breakup so hard he tried to commit suicide.  Nick goes on the offensive and tracks them down, insisting he did not hurt her.  He criticizes the authorities for not going after the real culprit.  Nick swears, despite evidence to the contrary, that he is innocent.

Yet, despite his protestations, all signs point to Nick, especially after the police find blood (and a lot of it!) in the kitchen.    And why does Nick keep seeing Amy bleeding anyway?  As Flynn writes, “I saw my wife, blood clotting her blond hair, weeping and blind in pain, scraping herself along our kitchen floor.”  He hears her call his name: “Nick, Nick, Nick!”  Might he be playing back the crime in his mind?

Just when you think you have it all figured out, Flynn introduces something else into the mix.  This is a who-done-it that really keeps you guessing, right up until the last page.  That’s what makes Gone Girl worth reading and what makes it so darn good.  I do not remember ever reading a thriller with so many plot twists and revelations.  After I finished, I wanted to immediately read it again to see what I had missed.

Amy was once a writer of personality quizzes for magazines.  To end this review, I am going to borrow something from her yet again.  After finishing Gone Girl and loving it, you:

A)  Tweet about it to your followers—hey, it’s the least you can do.

B)  Rate the book on Goodreads and even recommend it to your friends there—hey, they would like it, too.

C)  Write a glowing critical review of the novel—hey, it’s just that good!

D)  All of the above.

I know which choice I would pick.  I have a hunch that, after you read it, you’d give the same answer as I.  Gone Girl is Flynn’s best work.  Everyone needs a good mystery, and I challenge you to find a better one.  I know from experience that it isn’t easy!

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