The email from Hachette Book Group Canada began: “Please let me know if you’re interested in receiving the book that Jonathan Franzen ‘tore through…with heedless pleasure,’” but it was Maria Semple’s book trailer (above) that hooked me. If she could make me laugh this hard with the trailer, I really wanted to see how much funnier the actual novel would be.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is about fifteen year old Bee’s quest to find her mother, Bernadette, who has disappeared. At first, the story sounds like it would be depressing (a missing mother!) or at the very least, a literary award bait type coming of age/quest narrative (journey of a young girl, etc, cue violins). Fortunately, in Semple’s hands, the premise is comedic gold. This book had me laughing throughout — not subdued, ladylike giggles either, but rather chortling, falling off the bed in hysterics laughing.
It even has what is probably one of my favourite lines in a book, ever:
I attempted to pull Ms. Griffin off the teddy bear, which appeared to be causing her acute distress. [p. 176]
I love the format Semple chooses — instead of doing a straightforward narration of events, Semple tells her story through emails, newspaper clippings, and other pieces of research Bee uses in trying to find her mother. Through this, we get to here Bernadette’s voice, which is hilarious, naive, and somehow also tragic. Bernadette is a compelling character, a talented architect whose work takes America by storm and yet who somehow ends up a homemaker in Seattle.
Seattle is hardly the middle of nowhere, but Bernadette is horribly displaced, and her snarky comments about Microsoft, the rain and five-way intersections are razor-sharp. She is so out of her element in fact that she outsources most of her day-to-day work, such as making travel arrangements or buying graduation presents, to a “virtual assistant from India” for 75 cents an hour. Her emails to Manjula, the virtual assistant, are chatty and free-wheeling, reminding me of Becky Bloomwood from the Shopaholic series, and just like Becky, Bernadette seems much too naive to realize when she’s over her head.
Bernadette also has to deal with “gnats,” what she calls the fussy, snobbish women in her neighbourhood. The biggest gnat of all is a woman named Audrey Griffin, who hires “a blackberry abatement specialist” to clear her yard, and who is constantly at odds with Bernadette. Without giving too much away, I had no idea something as simple as “abating” a yard of blackberries could escalate into one of the most epically comic neighbourhood battle of wills I’ve ever seen.
Given how hilarious this book is, it’s a lovely surprise, and a testament to Semple’s talent, that it never devolves into pure farce. Rather, there’s much heart in this novel. We end up really caring for Bernadette and her family. Take for example my Goodreads update on page 266:
this book has been hilarious so far, but this part might just make me cry. 😦 I really want Bee to find her mom. 😦 [Goodreads]
The book gets to you. I was muttering “gnat” whenever I saw Audrey’s name, and I was truly worried when I realized another woman had the hots for Bernadette’s adorably geeky husband. The reason Bernadette moved to Seattle in the first place is on one hand, utterly comic, yet on the other, rather heartbreaking. Bernadette is a believable, lovable figure from her very first email to Manjula, yet her pre-Seattle life adds so much more depth to her character.
The ending is a bit too neat, especially considering the utter wild abandon that characterized the comedy throughout the novel, but I was still happy with how things turned out. The narrative also slows down considerably when Semple abandons the madcap rush through bits of evidence and instead switches to straightforward narration from Bee’s perspective. The switch makes sense, story-wise, but the narrative momentum waned. Still, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is comedic gold. If that book trailer makes you giggle, be warned: the book will make you laugh, will make you gasp, and every once in a while, may even make you shed a tear or two.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.