As you know, for our February book of the month we have been reading Where’d you Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. It’s not quite the end of the month if you are still reading, but here is my review to get us started on the discussion. I have tried not to include any spoilers, but you might not want to read on if you are still not finished with your copy!
When I finished this book I was left with very mixed feelings. Firstly, happiness; because I could rest assured the characters were going to be okay, and because finally I knew what had become of Bernadette; and lastly, a great sadness, because I was no longer in the throngs of an exciting journey in Antarctica. Compelling, entertaining, and satirical brilliance; this novel was both heart-warming and witty.
I am a great lover of character over plot line: I would read five hundred pages about paint drying if the characters watching it dry were well composed, and in this novel the characters do not disappoint. Bee is our main narrator, a sweet “Grade-S” student, who we see teeter on the edge of stroppy pre-teen and childlike innocence over the course of the novel, giving her an edge to accompany her sharp wit.
Her narration is cut between the varying correspondence between the other characters. It is through these letters and emails that both Bee and the reader piece together the events that lead to the disappearance of Bernadette. The letter-writing style took me a while to get my teeth into, I must admit, but what begins with a lengthy introduction to our characters through short snippets of correspondence becomes a complex, interwoven storyline. Just after half way through the book you enter cannot-put-down territory, and the reader begins to assemble all of the emails and a story is built from the fragments.
In using varying narrators through the form of transcripts, the entire novel is a tapestry of voices and tone. The techy-intellectual narrations of Elgie and Soo-Lin (I want to slap her) and the youthful tone of Bee are cut by the dazzling, intellectual narration of Bernadette. When her dialogue comes it is refreshing, and leaves you with beautiful phrases that linger long after she has one again disappeared. She talks about Seattle with great dislike, and refers the other parents as “gnats”. A recluse, who only leaves the house in dark shades and a headscarf, she appears rather crazy from the start. However, as we learn of her more obscure actions and it transpires that she may well actually be so, you are left believing, along with Bee, quite the opposite. Whether she be present in the novel, assumed to be dead, crazy, or sane, Bernadette has the strongest presence throughout the book, and one that is most welcome.
The satirical nature of this book means that it is crushingly funny, and yet despite tongue in cheek approach, Semple’s characters are exceedingly intelligent, and the jokes are sharp witted and well devised. It is clear from the prose that the writer, Maria Semple, is a television writer (“Arrested Development” and “Mad About You”), and this brings us something that is probably different from anything you have ever read, and this is a very good thing!
So lets get started with some discussion!
Head over to Cup of Coffee book club on Goodreads to join the conversation, or comment below!
1. Which character did you feel developed the most over the course of the novel?
2. Do you think the structure worked well? Have you read any other novels that used a similar correspondence-driven narration?
3. Bernadette’s journey and disappearance was both literal and metaphorical. Which do you feel was the most significant for her?
4. Which did you think were the most significant relationships in the novel?
5. What did you make of the roles the “gnats” Angela and Soo-Lin played in the story? How did they affect the family relationship between Bernadette, Elgin, and Bee?
6. What do you think Maria Semple is trying to convey about human nature?