Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Maria Semple was an LA-based script writer for shows including Ellen, Mad About You and Arrested Development before moving to Seattle and swapping TV writing for novels. In her Women’s Prize For Fiction nominated novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette she brings the humour, the pace and the precision that makes great TV to this warm, funny, charming, clever book. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a joy to read from beginning to end, but for all its humour its far from a light and fluffy read, there’s a (often very funny) darkness that lies just beneath the surface of its fizzy narrative.

The AWOL Bernadette of the title was once a brilliant LA-based architect who fled her job and Los Angeles after a disagreement with an arrogant, smarmy yet wildly successful English TV producer (who could this be possibly based on?) and followed her Microsoft-employed husband Elgie to soggy Seattle, a city she hates with such passion that you know its wormed its way into her affections. In the years since their move, Bernadette has barely left their leaky, crumbling house, a former girls correction centre that was to be her Seattle project.

Much of the humour comes from Bernadette’s scathing view of Seattle. She hates the lakes, the mountains, the rain, the Big Brotherly-ness of Microsoft and the fustiness of the residence. She hates that it’s so near ‘nice’ Canada. One of the highlights is a chapter where Bernadette writes a vicious, hilarious letter to a former colleague pouring sharply funny scornballs all over the city that spawned grunge. But as much as she dislikes the city, she dislikes the idea of leaving it even more. When her daughter Bee, a straight A student, asks for a family trip to Antarctica as her end of year award, Bernadette is horrified. How can a woman who finds leaving the house a bumpy enough ride, navigate the turbulent waters of Drake’s Passage?

But in a bid to escape the mental hospital where her Microsoft absorbed husband Elgie believes is the only place for his wife who, he thinks, runs over school gate mother’s feet and causes mudslides by wilfully pulling out the soil-binding blackberry bushes, she throws herself at the mercy of the world’s most treacherous sea crossing. (To be fair to Elgie, his concerns over her mental health aren’t helped by him finding her asleep in a pharmacy. Oh, and then there’s the FBI investigation).

When Bernadette fails to return from her Antarctic adventure, everyone, expect tenacious Bee thinks she’s dead. The novel is the story of her search for her mother told through a series of letters, emails, police reports, even a (brilliant)  transcript of a TED talk on robots given by Elgie. This mish mash of what forms the evidence in Bee’s quest is linked by the fifteen-year-old’s eminently sensible but far from dull narrative. Semple somehow manages to make the complex and unlikely reality of Bee coming to have in her possession everything from letters from the blackberry bush exterminator to two-line postcards between once close friends sound completely plausible. I can’t imagine the kinds of knots she tied herself into writing it.

Bernadette is a rare fictional female. We know she wears big dark sunglasses even in the rain and tames her unruly, Seattle-rain ravaged hair in a jaunty headscarf. We know she’s 50. We know she doesn’t worry about her weight or wrinkles; she’s not in a tortured marriage nor having a messy affair; she’s not beautiful (or at least we’re not told she is), her effect on men is based purely on her architectural achievements and her uncompromising professional personality.

Your opinion on the novel will no doubt be dictated by how much you like Bernadette. I loved her; she was as refreshing as a Seattle shower, as funny and as flawed and a little bit mad as all the best people are. She was kinder than any of the church-going, PTA-attending women at the school gates who sneered at her out-of-town unorthodoxy and, although almost consigned to a mental hospital, saner than most others around her. There are a host of other characters, all borderline caricatures, but with the true comic writer’s touch of injecting them with enough humanity to make them less cartooning and more relatable. But ultimately, this is Bernadette’s journey, and one you’ll have a blast joining her on.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book review: Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is a book I hold dear. It’s a brilliantly crafted, hugely evocative and superbly plotted novel that’s taunt, thrilling, sad and thought-provoking. It’s a book I often think about and frequently recommend to people.

Despite my love of The Poisonwood Bible, I never felt the urge to read The Lacuna, Kingsolver’s Orange Prize winning novel, but my interest in her was sparked again when her latest, Flight Behaviour, was shortlisted for the same, although now differently named, prize.

Where The Poisonwood Bible was tight, gripping and powerful, Flight Behaviour is slack, rambling and, at times, frankly, dull. There are flashes of Kingsolver’s brilliance that would have shone so much brighter if the deadwood around it had been pruned; I read the novel with an imaginary red marker pen, mentally crossing out all those erroneous words, paragraphs, even chapters.

Ostensibly, Flight Behaviour is about climate change, a huge subject so far largely avoided by novelist. On the evidence of Flight Behaviour it’s not surprising. Kingsolver struggles to grapple with the subject while also balancing characterisation and a plot. The result is like holding onto a balloon during a hurricane, she can’t keep hold of the structure or characters as they repeatedly blow off course.

Kingsolver shouldn’t have been afraid of her subject. The climate change scenes, particularly those featuring sexy scientist Ovid Bryon as a mouthpiece and Kingsolver’s working class protagonist Dellarobia as translator, are by far the most fascinating. They are meticulously researched and well handled, as they are fed back to the reader in easy to understand, but never patronising ways.

But the characters, in particular Dellarobia, the teenage bride with a brain bigger than her ambitions, rather make a nuisance of themselves.

The novel opens with Dellarobia witnessing what she takes to be a ‘ball of flame’ as she attempts to escape her dreary life in pursuit of a handsome bit on the side. The phenomenon sends her back to her to drudgery – her dumb husband and two demanding children – but the ‘ball of flame’, which turns out to be thousands of lost and confused monarch butterflies, changes her life in a far more dramatic way. The butterflies presenence in Dellarobia’s back garden puts her in the media spotlight, while her own life is put under the microscope along with the countless dead insects. Dellarobia and the butterflies must both reboot their internal sat navs and find a new course.   

Dellarobia is Kingsolver’s weak spot. She’s a bright, ambitious woman (we’re told) who was born into a poor family in a deprived rural area. She was hit hard by bad luck – her parents died, she got pregnant, was forced to marry the father (sofa-bound Cub, who she’s still married to), the baby died. Now she has two children by Cub and a god-bothering mother-in-law with the emotional depth of a puddle.

Kingsolver has rightly identified that the working class are largely ignored, chastised or mocked in the climate change debate. In Kingsolver’s Tennessee rural community, God is responsible for weather patterns and strange butterfly phenomenons. Poor farmers, whose crops have been wrecked by unseasonal weather, haven’t been taught by those that have the power to educate (the media come in for a lot of blame in Flight Behaviour for their irresponsible attitude towards climate change and the poor) that selling their forests to pay their immediate bills will only exacerbate their problems as well as the world’s.

It’s a commendable approach, and Kingsolver makes some very valid points, best summed up by Dellarobia when she’s asked by one of the environmentalists that land on their doorstep about her carbon footprint. It’s tiny; she buys all her clothes second-hand, doesn’t own a computer, has never flown. But Kingsolver never feels comfortable writing about the poor rural community and she frequently trips over herself in a bid not to offend which leads to a good many contradictions and some rambling, unnecessary chapters where I felt repeatedly hit over the head with Valid Points.

Dellarobia is a confusing and muddled character. There’s a huge disparity between what we’re shown of her character and how she’s described by others, a fault that runs through the novel as a whole – there is far too much telling, and not enough showing. As a reader I hate being force-fed characters, I want them to take take shape in front of my eyes not be bossed into being told what they’re like. When Dellarobia gives up smoking, her mother-in-low, Hester, comments that she knew she would as Dellarobia always succeeds when she puts her mind to it. Does she? Because all I can see is a woman who married a man she didn’t love and has been content to keep house for him and his children for the past decade while complaining about it and getting through by having crushes on inappropriate men.

Kingsolver has real power in her writing and has proven she’s capable of true literary brilliance There felt that there was a great novel waiting to hatch from Flight Behaviour, but it was washed away by an over-elaborate plot that was rushed, confused and unfocused.

 by Suzanne Elliott