04 September 2012

Book Review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Summary (from Goodreads): Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom. 
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic. To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.

Oddly enough, I don't think this summary does much for the book, but two of the blurbs on it really work for me. Garth Stein says that it is "a compassionate look at family dysfunction, the paralysis of genius, and good old-fashioned parental love" and Jonathan Franzen "tore through this book with heedless pleasure." I had just finished reading a slew of YA books, I was hungry for some adult fare, and I had just a big enough gap of time to let myself indulge in some bookseller's guilt. That's right. I read a book that was already published, albeit recently (two weeks ago). 

Structurally the book is cobbled together, ostensibly by 15 year old Bee, from various emails, letters, and notes, with occasional first-person interjections from Bee to give a sense of cohesion. Usually I hate this kind of narrative structure, but the informality of the novel makes for a surprisingly good pairing. The epistolary excerpts are all written to, from, or are tangentially related to Bernadette, and my favorite parts were either those written by the heinous Audrey Griffin, Bernadette's neighbor and gnat-nemesis, or the ones Bernadette herself writes to Manjula Kapoor, the woman in India whom she hires to be her outsourced personal assistant.

You know how sometimes a book can come to you at just the right time and you really click with it?  And that same book, if you'd read it a month ago or a year in the future, might not have resonated with you at all?  That's how I feel about Where'd You Go, Bernadette. For whatever reason, I read this book at the right time and had so much fun doing it, but I also had the sense while reading it that if I'd come at it another time I would have simply put it down, unfinished.  Parts of it are incredibly funny, and I loved the send-up of the Seattle scene, that certain brand of parenting characterized by the "gnats," east coast elitism, Microsoft, the MacArthur genius grant, people's deep earnestness to be PC and inclusive, and everything else.

Is it realistic? Heavens, no! But I can forgive a book a good many things if it makes me laugh. There were lots of parts that I enjoyed but oddly enough I only dogeared one section. It's from a letter Bernadette has written to Manjula, asking her to make a Thanksgiving dinner reservation for her family. Clearly Bernadette realizes that it's pretty outlandish to email a person in India to call a restaurant in your neighborhood for a reservations, so she gives equally outlandish reasons for doing so:
"There's always this guy who answers the phone...and he always says it in this friendly, flat Canadian way. One of the main reasons I don't like leaving the house is because I might find myself face-to-face with a Canadian. Seattle is crawling with them. You probably think, U.S./Canada, they're interchangeable because they're both filled with English-speaking, morbidly obese white people. Well, Manjula, you couldn't be more mistaken.
Americans are pushy, obnoxious, neurotic, crass--anything and everything--the full catastrophe as our friend Zorba might say. Canadians are none of that....To Canadians, everyone is equal. Joni Mitchell is interchangeable with a secretary at open-mic night. Frank Gehry is no greater than a hack pumping out McMansions on AutoCAD. John Candy is no funnier than Uncle Lou when he gets a couple of beers in him. No wonder the only Canadians anyone's ever heard of are the ones who have gotten the hell out. Anyone with a talent who stayed would be flattened under an avalanche of equality. The thing Canadians don't understand is that some people are extraordinary and should be treated accordingly. 
Yes, I'm done (26-27)."
Bernadette is full of rants just like that. I kind of love her, and I kind of want to slap her, but I don't see those things as being mutually exclusive. This book is both wry and funny with a postmodern, sly humor. I can't think of any truly great comps, but it falls somewhere along the spectrum of Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang, Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You, and Rachel DeWoskin's Big Girl Small. It's not a book that has tremendous lasting power, and I'm a little surprised that it clicked so strongly with me in the moment, but like the Stones said, if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.

NB: I picked this book up from the ARC pile in my store after hearing generally good buzz about it. The ARC cover, which I photographed here, is slightly different from the finished cover. Rather than the blue triangles (mountains and/or icebergs) in the background, we get the same face with a yellow headscarf and no blue triangles.


  1. This sounds really intriguing. And that rant about Canadians cracks me up - not that I agree with it all, but I agree with that last line that there are extraordinary people who should not suffer under the "everyone is a winner" mentality that seems to be cropping up in schools everywhere.

    I'll keep an eye out for this at the library. Thanks for the review!

    1. If you thought that rant was funny, you'd probably enjoy most of the book. Full of self-righteous indignation over bizarre things.

  2. This definitely doesn't sound like my kind of thing, but I so agree with you about books hitting a right note at different times in one's life -- there are books I know aren't great but the moment is perfect and I love it -- it's the relationship I have with the book as much as the book's story, etc.

    1. It's funny how certain books only speak to us at certian times. if you do read it, i'll be curious to see how you respond to it.

  3. Ah the right book, right time scenario! It happens to me a lot (and the reverse as well). Hopefully when I get to BERNADETTE it'll be the right time for me as well. The book trailer was hilarious and I seriously hope I find the book equally so.

  4. Well, I will just give it a go and hope that it's the right time for me. Thanks for helping me determine what books to spend my money on this week.

  5. It's been too long since I checked in with you ...I'm reading The Eye of the Storm right now which is tough going. It sounds like Bernadette might be just the ticket after I'm done.
    That rant you excerpted was exquisite and since I grew up in Canada, it strikes a special chord.

  6. As always I thoroughly enjoyed your review. I especially enjoyed the Canadian rant having grown up in Toronto and Niagara Falls before moving to the states. Adding it to the stack.

  7. I have this one on my shelf, and I may have to move it up in line (I could use something funny and touching!). Great review, as always, thank you!!


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