Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Book Review

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Who on earth is Bernadette, and where the hell did she go? Good question; this is how the novel opens:

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This is Bee, a precocious young teenager who is the daughter of Elgin Branch, Microsoft guru; and Bernadette Fox, neurotic architectural genius. After getting top marks on her report card, Bee reminds her parents that they had said she could have anything she wants. This anything turns out to be a trip to Antarctica. And so kick off a chain of events, charted through a mixture of emails, letters, notes, instant messages and reports; that lead to the disappearance of Bernadette.

Bernadette is highly opinionated, highly antisocial (completely disconnected from the real world to the extent that she has a virtual assistant based in India who does everything for her, short of breathing), hates everything about Seattle (‘Sometimes these cars have Idaho plates. And I think, What the hell is a car from Idaho doing here? Then I remember, That’s right, we neighbour Idaho. I’ve moved to a state that neighbours Idaho. And any life that might still be left in me kind of goes poof.’), and doesn’t care that she’s disliked by all the parents from Bee’s school – a pretentious school of ‘Subaru Parents’ (trying very hard to become ‘Mercedes Parents) where the worst grade you can get is a ‘W’ – working towards excellence. Yeah, that kinda nonsense.

Everybody in this book is so incredibly self-involved it is positively hilarious. Their ability to over exaggerate every little small detail and turn it into a 3-page rant creates a novel that is pure, unapologetic satire. An example of this hilarious exaggeration is when Bernadette is telling Manjula, her virtual assistant, about the difficulties of trying to park her car downtown when forced to pick up a dodgy prescription:

‘It was the first time I’d been downtown in a year. I immediately remembered why: the pay-to-park meters. Parking in Seattle is an eight-step process…Step eight, pray to the God you don’t believe in that you have the mental wherewithal to remember what the hell it was you came downtown for in the first place. Already I wished a Chechen rebel would shoot me in the back.’

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Maria Semple has written quite a bit of comedy for TV – this is obvious when you start getting into this book. The dialogue is sharp and witty if a little forced at times in that sitcom kinda way. And though Semple does it well, I have to say that there has already been a book written in this format, that I think pushes the humour button a little more naturally than ‘Bernadette’. This book is ‘E: A Novel’ by Matt Beaumont – a brilliantly funny book if you ever have the time.

So, together with Bee, the reader pieces together fragments of information from all these random bits of correspondence, to see if we can find out where on earth Bernadette has got to. Underneath the razor-sharp wit, this book has a lot of heart and is one of those unusual ones where you genuinely don’t know what’s coming next. The twists and turns seem so random yet they work really well together. The only thing I’ll say is that the final third or so didn’t quite match up to the humour of the first two sections and so was a bit of a let down. And I won’t say anymore than that, because part of the pleasure of reading (most of) this is the unexpected way in which the story unfolds.

Another thing that’s surprising is that this book has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year (formerly known as the Orange Prize). Though entertaining I didn’t think it was of that calibre….but then again, something shouldn’t have to be ‘serious’ in order to be considered prize worthy. Perhaps it’s the pure originality (minus the format) that has made the judges think twice.

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Why Blogging Reminds Me of High School

Blogging kind of reminds me of high school. Ok, that’s not quite true.  I didn’t actually go to ‘high school’ per se. I spent my senior school years in England where it is in actual fact called secondary school; so there’s that. I thought I should clarify that in case you were picturing me in jeans and a JanSport backpack, walking down locker-lined halls listening to Blink 182. Mine was an all-girls situation and I had to wear a ghastly red and baby blue uniform. Real Hot. (Did not bring any boys to the yard.)

I should probably shut up now because my ‘high school’ experiences were nothing like that which is depicted in most stereotypical high school teen movies from the late 90s / early 2000s (complete with unrealistic, synchronised mass-dancing scene). (For some reason, the only film that seems to keep popping into my head is She’s All That with Freddie Prinze Jnr, back in the days when he was desirable, haha.)

Source: Wikipedia.org

Sorry, couldn’t resist. This is sooo bad, it’s actually quite good:

So let me change this post to ‘Why Blogging Reminds Me of What I Stereotypically Believe an American High School to Be Like.’

A lot of the bloggers are nice and friendly to the new girl in school: they talk to me, make me feel welcome, occasionally respond to one of my many questions. A small number even decide to be my friend and follow me around the campus of WordPress High.

We wander around in our cliques (categories); the foodies stick together and are always seen with their cameras at lunch time, the bookworms talk about books that are 50 shades of a colour that is not grey, so therefore no one cares; the geeks fill their pages with concepts only few understand, the arty ones don’t care if they’re liked, they let their pictures speak for themselves. And then you have the popular kids which are those blogs with a really large following, taunting you with their stats. They are the jocks and cheerleaders, all blonde and soaring blue eyed graphs looking down at you from their thousandth hit of the day whilst you’re still struggling to make double digits on most days. People just flock to them. You hate them. Or hate that you follow them and ‘like’ everything they do.

You post something new on your blog, ending with a few questions to encourage discussion and debate. You agonise over a catchy title, add a few interesting pictures, tag like your life depends on it, and you’re pretty much good to go.

And then no one responds.

Your question remains unanswered, floating about in cyber space as a constant reminder of your miniature failure. It’s like being relegated to the Loser’s table in the cafeteria (again, making this up, I had an assigned seat at lunch). The sting of rejection is palpable. But then after a while you get used to it, like you get used to having your lunch money stolen. You no longer expect to eat lunch. Who needs those calories anyway? Pshh.

And then one day, out of the blue, you are seen talking to WordPress in the halls (this means you’ve been Freshly Pressed), who’s like this uber cool kid in school so now everyone wants to talk to you. Those questions from before, they’re now answered without any prompting. So many people want to have discussions with you, you can barely keep up. You’re ‘liked’ into oblivion. You feel loved; validated. You try to play it cool.

A week goes by, and soon the other students start to forget that you’ve been touched with the ‘cool’ wand and wander off to talk to the next new thing. You feel used. You feel empty. Like a one night stand.

So the ultimate goal of high school is to be popular, to be heard, to matter. And here most of us are, high school a distant (or I guess not-so-distant) memory, still being haunted by who to sit next to in class. Who will cause those blue-eyed graphs to ripple…?

Disclaimer: This is total tongue-in-cheek.