26 March 2014

Reprise: Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I'm off to Nashville, y'all. Home of the imitation Parthenon, country music and my husband's extended family, among other things. I'm trying really hard to post twice a week to the blog, so what follows is my original review of Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, which I first read book back in August 2012.  I'm updating this review to include some information about the audio book, which I have recently listened to.  When I first read Bernadette, which I really liked, I claimed that it was the right book for me at the right time. Now, however, I might go so far as to say that it was simply the right book, full stop.  A book that I liked a couple of years ago has now become one of my favorite audio book experiences.  I absolutely loved it and I had several moments where I lingered in my car long after reaching my destination, just to stay immersed in the story.

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 her own 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.

(end of original review)
The audio book is read by Kathleen Wilhoite, and I'll be honest with you: I didn't like her at first. Not at all.  By the time I came to the end, however, I was very impressed with Ms Wilhoite's rendering of the various characters (a few New Zealanders not withstanding). I laughed out loud so many times when listening to this book, which I expected since I laughed many times while reading it.  What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the number of times I wanted to cry while listening to it, since the book didn't have that effect on me at all. I was also completely caught up in Bee's excitement over things, and with Bernadette's anguish over the Twenty Mile House (you'll just have to read/listen to know what I mean) and the sheer ridiculosity, for lack of a better word, that just keeps on building and building until that particular bubble bursts. 

Seriously, I ended up loving this book on audio, to the point where I actually gave it a 5-star rating on Goodreads. I rarely do that. Hachette has recently lowered the price on the unabridged audio to just $14.99, so I bought one for myself and I encourage everybody who loves audio books to rush out now and buy it for yourself at that price. 

The only caveat I have for the audio is that if you're listening to it without having read it first, you will have to really pay attention to the epistolary parts: in other words, who is writing to whom. I occasionally skimmed over that in the book and had to go back to look things up, which is clearly more difficult to do with an audio.  

So, I'm curious.  Any of you readers have different experiences when reading vs listening to a book?  I know I read differently when I'm reading an e-book vs a physical book, so I guess it shouldn't come as quite the surprise to me that listening and reading engage different parts of the mind. 


  1. I'm still extraordinarily leery of audiobooks. But DON'T FORGET ABOUT THE FABULOUS BOOK TRAILER FOR BERNADETTE. It is my favorite.

  2. I have NEVER listened to a book BUT your review, such great reading in itself, may take me there. I still haven't got to Bernadette - not beyond the free sample on my Nook anyway - but I have a Bday coming up, maybe I'll put it on my list. Off now to check out the book trailer!

  3. Harry Potter is the only book I've read and listened to but I've been thinking of making audiobooks my go to for rereads. My attention just isn'e quite there for new-to-me books in audiobook, but that's not quite as big a deal if I already know the book. Plus I won't feel guilty about rereading something when I have 100, 000 unread books in my shelves.

    Although I'm a little scared to listen to this one because Bernadette has such a specific voice in my head and I'd hate to lose that (her evil generalisations of Canadians notwithstanding). But your review has encouraged me to at least listen to a sample

  4. Yes. Yes I need to listen to this. If you didn't give it such a high review I'd probably be wary. I mean, like you said, the epistolary structure can make it hard to keep up with who's talking. BUT $15. Yes, I can swing that.

    I've had different reactions to the book vs. audio-book version of WWZ which surprised me. The couple times I've read the book I was focused on the zombies. I'm not sure why but the book scared me far more. When I listened to it I realized how little they're actually present in the story. I felt the human element to the goings-on more. That probably has a lot to do with the cast they got to read it.

  5. That's a good point. I don't listen to a lot of audiobooks, but I can understand how all of the letters/emails etc. could be confusing with this story!


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