Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, BernadetteI had this strange feeling while reading this book for one book club that it was definitely the book I wish my other book club had read instead of Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, which is baffling because they’re really not the same book at all, except for that fact that there are disappearing mothers and very cold places involved in the story. I think what made me compare them is that both of them are full of absurd coincidences and unlikely events, but Bernadette acknowledges and really encourages its own insanity. Yes, perfect, pass me the blackberry bush remover.

I will grant that at first, I was like, what the heck is this. The book is written as a collection of emails and letters and memos between, like, every character in the story, and at the beginning things are a little odd because Bernadette has not gone anywhere and is instead in Seattle being a crazy lady. Crazy in a good way, in that she snarks on all her daughter’s classmates’ parents and the city of Seattle generally and that she has lots of disposable income lying around to do things like make eight-foot signs to annoy her neighbors, but also crazy in a bad way in that she lives in a seriously dilapidated old building and outsources most of her life to a virtual assistant out of India.

The epistolary format starts to make more sense, though, as the story shifts back and forth between Bernadette’s emails to her assistant about her family’s impending trip to Antarctica (I mentioned rich, right?), her neighbor and fellow school parent Audrey’s emails and notes to another friend about how crazy Bernadette is and how Bernadette totally ran over her foot in the pickup line at school, Bernadette’s emails to her assistant authorizing payment for the totally ridiculous doctor’s fees resulting from this imaginary injury, etc. etc. We get to see how completely deluded all these characters are, how they think they interact with each other, and how they really interact with each other. And it’s the disparity between the last two that really drives the plot of this book, which hits a high point at an intervention involving both a psychiatrist and several federal agents, at the same time. Awesome?

The ending of the book is a bit rough, partly because there are some overlapping timelines that make working out the order of events a little difficult and partly because the ending is not quite as insane as the rest of the book and therefore feels a bit out of place. Of course, the ending involves most of the characters becoming less insane than they were in the rest of the book, so I guess that makes sense thematically. But I wouldn’t have been upset with, like, a penguin going insane and biting people or someone getting stuck on an ice floe with inexplicable access to email.

Regardless, I loved this book so much. It’s absolutely bonkers and doesn’t take itself at all seriously, and yet it imparts important morals like “clear communication is important” and “for real, though, if you people would just talk to each other things would be so much easier.” Usually a severe lack of communication between characters is cause for me to throw books against the wall screaming “That’s what mouths are for, dummies!”, but Semple makes it work. You can tell she’s written for Arrested Development, and for me that’s an absolute plus. When’s her next book coming out??

Recommendation: For those who wanted A Confederacy of Dunces to have slightly more likeable characters.

Rating: 10/10

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