Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
February 11th, 2013
Just finished reading Where'd you go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple!
Synopsis: Bernadette Fox hates her life in Seattle. Forced to move when her husband's company was bought by Microsoft, Bernadette doesn't fit in, she thinks the residents and their ways are weird and infuriating, and it's slowly driving her crazy. (Her husband, OTOH, is having the time of his life as a hotshot at MS.) When her beloved daughter Bee wants to go on a family trip to Antarctica, Bernadette disappears. Now Bee is piecing together all the clues she can find from the last couple weeks to figure out where Bernadette could be.
The book is written in epistolary style as a series of emails, letters, etc. with some commentary in between from Bee.
Epistolary style is a classic gimmick used by people who want to tell a story without having their non-existant writing skills get in the way. I've never read a novel whose author employed this format for any other reason, and WYGB is no exception.
That said, it's an enjoyable light read, and I respect Maria Semple for being self-aware of her own limitations as a writer.
Let me start by saying, I'm actually incredibly confused at how much praise WYGB is receiving for its format. NYT review says the book "utterly refute[s] the notion that mixed-media fiction is bloggy, slack or lazy."
Wow. That … I really couldn't disagree with that more.
A well-written epistolary novel would be a work of art: the letters would be realistic, short, maybe 5-10 paragraphs at the very max. There'd be almost no dialogue, because who writes actual verbatim dialogue in an email? Each person's letter would capture the letter-writer's distinct voice, and every letter-writer would be an unreliable narrator, because who tells the truth when gossiping with their friends? And indirectly, after reading a series of not-quite-related documents, you the reader would be able to piece together a coherent underlying story.
In contrast, an author abusing the epistolary format is using the format because it's easy and comfortable to write. You don't have to worry about scene changes; just end one letter and start another! Want to know what someone's thinking about some incident? Have them write a journal entry!
And to Maria Semple's credit, I'm positive she was fully aware that she was using this format as a crutch, and I don't think she ever pretended otherwise. I mean, the "letters" and "emails" in this novel are unequivocally contrived: an "email" runs on for pages, with dialogue that's meant to be taken as literally as court records.
Here's an anecdote Bernadette's husband conveniently slips in in a letter to the head of his daughter's prospective boarding school:
While we're on the subject, please indulge me while I tell you the story of the first and last time Bee ever claimed she was bored. Bernadette and I were driving Bee and a friend, both preschoolers, to a birthday party. There was traffic. Grace said, "I'm bored."
"Yeah," Bee mimicked, "I'm bored."
Bernadette pulled the car over, took off her seatbelt, and turned around. "That's right," she told the girls, "You're bored. And I'm going to let you on a little secret about life. You think it's boring now? Well, it only gets more boring. The sooner you learn it's on you to make life interesting, the better off you'll be."
"OK," Bee said quietly. Grace burst into tears and never had a playdate with us again. It was the first and last time Bee ever said she was bored.
COME ON! Letters don't sound like that. Clearly it was an intentional decision on Maria Semple's part to use this format lazily, to let the letters and emails and notices be a scaffold for the story and humor rather than an artistic decision, or even a decision necessitated by the plot.
I don't think it was an intentional decision on Maria Semple's part to give all her character's the same voice, namely Maria Semple's. Everyone (with the exception of Manjula) sounds like a snarky, witty comedienne.
Anyway. Despite the above rant, I do think this was well-done for what it was intended to be: a light, funny read with an Arrested Development-esque interweaving of crossed paths. (Semple used to write for the show.) It's all plot and humor with little art, perfect for translating to a film.
I was also impressed with how tastefully Semple added in the "darker" moments of the novels. Most novels written by non-writers CRASH AND BURN when they try to get too ~serious~ (see The Help. Ugh, STILL HOLD SO MUCH RAGE toward that book!).
There's a part where Bernadette recalls her miscarriages and failures in her letter to her old colleague Paul Jellinek. This is probably the best piece of writing in the whole novel. Bernadette's letter mixes the funny and the sad and the honest in a lovely little essay. The pacing is natural, nothing is over the top, and it doesn't try to go too deep. I love that Bernadette admits her grief is not over the miscarriages, but the Twenty Mile House. And I love that Semple doesn't pat herself on the back for that observation; the essay charges forward naturally and with appropriate restraint.
Though the other notable "darker" moment in the book, I'm not totally sure how I feel about. When Bernadette disappears off a boat to Antarctica, everyone who hears the news assumes that Bernadette killed herself. Bee is convinced her mother wouldn't do that because her mother loves her too much and wouldn't leave her all alone in the world. I think that's a very realistic reaction for Bee to have, but when Bernadette turns up alive, it feels like Semple is validating Bee's reasoning. Not sure if Semple intended that message, and not sure how I feel about it either way.
But glad Bernadette was safe and sound at the end (again, Semple showing good restraint here to not try to make the novel more than what it is). It was a fast and enjoyable read that's not entirely made of fluff.