Monday, February 25, 2013

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Sometimes a book can be hilariously funny, bitingly critical of contemporary society and businesses, and wholly unpredictable. Maria Semple’s 2012 novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, is all of these things and more. I have to admit that I picked up the book because of its cover, and because I was looking for something humorous. The first time I started reading it, I put it down quite quickly when I discovered that it consisted mostly of letters, memos, directives to employees and all manner of communications without, apparently, a central narrator or a plausible theme. I don’t usually care for novels that consist primarily of letters between the main characters. However, once I gave the book a chance and read into it fifty pages or so, I couldn’t put it down.

Turns out there is a central narrator; she is a middle school student named Bee Branch, and her mother, Bernadette, is a celebrated architect who no longer designs houses, or anything else for that matter. Her father, Elgie, is a computer whiz who has already built a computer company and sold it to Microsoft for a very handsome profit; he is also famous for a TED talk (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) and a member of a very elite team at Microsoft working on a hush-hush project that requires almost all of his time.

Bee is an only child who has already survived a number of heart surgeries as an infant and young child; she is a bristlingly bright girl who has achieved perfect grades in middle school and has requested as her reward a family trip to Antartica. Her parents have told her she could have anything she wanted if she graduated from middle school with straight As, and extraordinary youngster that she is, she has requested the trip to Antarctica. Unfortunately, her mother Bernadette is not only agoraphobic but also given to extreme seasickness, and her father finds it difficult to take a day off of work, let alone the weeks, even months, that the trip will require. And thus the plot thickens.

Because of Elgie’s position at Microsoft, the family has had to move from their home in California to Seattle; Bernadette has not only had to move from a home she is famous for having designed, but has been forced to move to a city she despises—a city she sees as full of ridiculously overzealous moms, overly polite drivers, and much too close to Idaho (not to mention Canada). The combination has brought her nearly to a nervous breakdown, and she has had to hire a virtual assistant in India to help her plan the trip to Antarctica and to deal with even the basic tasks of day to day living. 

After some bitter (and very funny) fights with neighbors and moms from her daughter’s school, and some serious problems that crop up with the alleged virtual assistant in India, Elgie thinks it appropriate to have his wife committed involuntarily to a mental institution, at which time Bernadette simply disappears. Hence the title, Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, “What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.” You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question. When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, “The truth is complicated. There’s no way one person can ever know everything about another person.”  

Mom disappears into thin air two days before Christmas without telling me? Of course it’s complicated. Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.
It doesn’t mean I can’t try.
Don’t suppose that I’m giving away too much about this delightful book; what I’ve quoted above occurs on the first page, so the reader knows immediately that Bernadette will disappear, the only question is when, and what leads up to it. 

Bernadette calls the overzealous moms “gnats,” and she treats them with offhand contempt that she does not even try to hide from her daughter. Nor does she hide her opinion of the private school her daughter attends and its unceasing efforts to attract what a fundraiser calls “Mercedes Parents.” The fundraiser urges the parents to emancipate themselves from “Subaru Parent mentality”, and to aim at the $200K+ parents whose children are about to enter kindergarten. 

Besides the quite hilarious barbs directed towards snobby private schools, Semple also has plenty to say about Microsoft and the elitist mentality of its think-tank employees. If their work is not their purpose-in-life, their mission, they don’t last long.

Without telling you more about the twists and turns in the plot, I will mention Bee and her dad make it to Antarctica, which provides the reader some astute commentary on the very expensive guided tours and the companies that arrange them. 

All in all, the novel is full of surprises, totally unpredictable from page to page, and hilarious throughout. Semple is a wonderful writer. The brilliant, dyspeptic Bernadette and her  equally bright and candid daughter keep the reader both laughing and thinking! I’m not sure I could articulate what I learned from reading this novel, but I know that I enjoyed it, and I think you will too.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Me and Mr. Booker by Cory Taylor

The best way to introduce the author Cory Taylor is to let her lead character speak to us:
Everything I am about to tell you happened because I was waiting for it, or something like it. I didn’t know what exactly, but I had some idea. This was a while ago, after I decided that a girl is just a woman with no experience. I know what Mr. Booker would say on the topic of experience. He would say what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts.
First of all there was the question of age. I was sixteen when I first met Mr. Booker, which can be young or old depending on the person. In my case it was old. I started to feel old when I was about ten, which was about the same time as my parents decided they had wasted their chances in life. I knew this because they told anyone who would listen, and this included me. I think disappointment was something I inherited from them both, along with their wavy hair and their table manners. In particular I think it was Victor who taught me at a young age how to lower my expectations.
These are the opening words of Martha, both the hero and the victim in Cory Taylor’s brilliant debut novel. The ‘debut novel’ label may mislead, for while this is her first novel, she is an accomplished screenwriter and author of short fiction, which manifests itself in the liquid smoothness of her first novel.  Her writing is so seamless that the reader forgets there is a writer behind the young narrator. From the first page to the last, I assumed I was listening to Martha, a sixteen year old Australian girl struggling to find her way in the hazy transition from childhood to being an adult. Martha is wise far beyond her years, yes, but also a hurt and searching child forced into the world of not simply witnessing, but counseling and adjudicating the ongoing wars between her parents.

One reviewer said this book was darkly comic, and while it certainly is comic, I see little or no darkness in it. A struggle yes; an uncommonly difficult coming of age, yes. It is hard enough just to be a successful child of  (more or less) separated  parents, but to be thrust into the role of counselor to her mother, and forced somehow to stand guard between her mother and Victor, her father, and sometimes between Victor and her younger brother—too much. She never calls him father, only Victor. Refusing even in name to deny essential separation.

She might have turned to Eddie, her younger brother at least as ally, someone to talk to about the craziness of their father, but “It was like he thought talking was kind of wasted effort that he didn’t see the need for because it didn’t lead anywhere.”

In fact, she turns to Mr. Booker, a stylish Englishmen and his beautiful wife, Mr. and Mrs. Booker. They need her as much (or more) than she needs them. Although they live in a fog of alcohol and frustrated dreams themselves. 

I’m not going to stress the sexual parts of this novel except to say that they are more comic than titillating. Although reviewers can’t help themselves from comparing the book to Lolita, and as perhaps a Lolita’s-eye-view of it all, it’s a silly comparison. The important and redeeming character in the book is Martha, who manages to escape not only from the sad, drunk Mr. Booker and his sad, lonely and isolated wife, but from Victor and even from her well meaning but ineffectual mother. Running to Sydney, perhaps with the help of one of her mother’s best friends, she regrets leaving her mother alone, and still not quite rid of Victor despite years of living more or less apart.  

Her mother wants to accompany her to Sydney, but Martha replies that she can manage on her own.  
She didn’t argue. She must have wanted to but I think she was scared that if she made it hard for me to get away from my father I would hold it against her for the rest of my life. My mother didn’t believe in confrontation. It wasn’t that she was weak, it was just that she didn’t see the point of it. She liked to tell me there were forces all around us that we couldn’t even see, and it was a question not so much of trusting them, but of accepting how helpless we were in the face of their power. Even so it must have been hard for her to watch me go; she probably thought she was losing me the same way she’s lost Eddie.
What counts most in this novel is not the sex, not even the tumult of the lives of the main characters, but the voice of the lead character. I, perhaps still naïve reader of fiction that I am, hear it as Cory Taylor’s voice. Looking back, yes, and with the wisdom that looking back affords, but expressing it always in the voice of that girl, of Martha. A strong and mostly lucid voice.

I read this book in a day or two because, cliché or not, I could not put it down. I loved it—the writing, the wit, the wisdom.