Where to start with this book? It took me a while to warm to it and for a couple of days I put it down and considered not finishing it (I’m having a bit of a problem with this recently). My main reason was that it didn’t grab my attention in the first couple of pages because it seemed too disjointed. I’ve noticed a trend in fiction recently where authors have started to use various different forms of writing; letters, emails, bills, reports etc. to compose their novels instead of regular prose. This can sometimes make a novel feel slightly erratic, especially if the different mediums and styles aren’t dealt with properly. “Where’d You Go Bernadette?” (WYGB) is a perfect example of this trend. Maria Semple builds her story by pulling together many seemingly meaningless threads of information such as notes from gardeners and school reports. I found this quite frustrating initially, as I felt that I was been bombarded with a glut of information that had no relevance to what I wanted to find out, namely where did Bernadette go? Then, and I’m not sure why, I was reminded of William Faulkner…I know, right? And I thought, what if what Semple was actually doing with this information overload was trying to build a bigger picture without glossing over the little facts. Anyone who embroiders will know what this feels like, stitching hundred of little individually insignificant stitches until suddenly you glance at what you’ve done and see something emerging. What if, I though, Semple is using seemingly pointless notes to gardeners to expose all of the events in the lead up to Bernadette Fox’s disappearance in order to help the reader really understand what happened. *I need to take a moment here to give a shout out to my friend “M.T”, without your long chats about Faulkner I would have probably given up on this book, or certainly never read so much into it!”*
How does Faulker relate to Semple, a comic writer who has worked on shows like “Ellen” and “Arrested Development”, I hear you say? Stay with me, on this little tangent, it has a point I promise! Wikipedia tells anyone who is interested in “Absalom! Absalom! that “By using various narrators expressing their interpretations, the novel alludes to the historical cultural zeitgeist of Faulkner’s South, where the past is always present and constantly in states of revision by the people who tell and retell the story over time; it thus also explores the process of myth-making and the questioning of truth.” In essence, this quote (out of context) could also apply to “WYGB?”. Semple uses a similar structure of different voices, interpretations and media types to expose the complicated, erratic character of Bernadette Fox. You know that bit in Mean Girls where they have the split screens of characters talking about their relationship to Regina George? It’s a bit like that.
*Faulkner and Mean Girls in one paragraph, who knew we’d end up here?!*
Now I’m not trying to say that “WYGB?” is a modern day “Absalom! Absalom!”, because it’s not, but once I had the idea of this search for the truth in my head the book suddenly stopped being frustrating. I began looking at each different entry as a potential clue and I started trying to guess each character’s motivations for saying what they say. Regarding this, what makes Semples writing so good in “WYGB?” is how deftly she chooses to reveal certain facts, and when. She is in no hurry to get to the conclusion and so the plot unravels slowly but surely. This results in a gradual build up of tension, as more and more nuggets of information are revealed. Equally clever is how the motives of each voices in the novel are gradually exposed (and also how distinct they are) to the reader as the plot moves towards its crescendo. I’m glad I persevered with this book because towards the end I was totally hooked.
One of the critics on the back page of the dust jacket called “WYGB?” a black comedy, which I think fits very well. “WYGB?” deals with an awful situation which includes depression, illness and loss and at times it is very sad. Often, however, the full effect of this is dulled by Semple’s sarcastic writing and barbed jokes which turn the novel from what, in the wrong hands, would be a relentlessly depressing read into a funny social commentary. Semple’s keen sense of the ridiculous often reminded me of a good old fashioned farce. Her characters are all completely eccentric and at times the plot twists are larger than life.
Saying that, using Bee, Bernadette’s daughter, as the narrative voice is what really gives this novel a heart. I think she is the perfect mix of precocious teenager and sad little girl who is dealing with, literally, loosing her mother. Bee is just the right amount of anger, frustration, ambivalence, and wit to keep the novel going and at times I found myself wanting to reach inside the pages and just give her a hug. It is Audrey Griffin, however, who kind of steals the show and is by far my favourite character. She’s just the most perfect example of highly strung nutcase to really make me laugh and I loved watching her secondary plot line unravel! It’s still making me chuckle as I write this now.
Overall this a quirky little book that I enjoyed reading. I think this would make a great holiday read, but as this review comes to you from England I’m categorising it as a “Rainy Day Read” because, let’s be real for a moment, unless you are going somewhere exotic this summer, we all know we’re going to need some of those come our annual summer deluge of rain. Plus it’s set in Seattle where it apparently does nothing but rain so it seemed quite fitting!