The Hype is Right: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Book Spoilery Review)

Of the million reasons I don’t want to go to Antarctica, the main one is that it will require me to leave the house.”

 

Flipping through five pages of praise to get to the actual storyline of Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a telling sign. Plus: the book is set in the month of November when it starts, which is the current month, and reading something that’s set in the same period of time is only a bonus that works in my favor, same as I mentioned back in my review for The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel (set in June, read in June).

When they say this book is made up of emails and letters, they’re not kidding. The whole first half of this book uses anything and everything, except standard chapters, to tell the story of the Branch family (consisting of 15-year-old Bee and her parents Bernadette Fox and Elgie) and the people in their orbit. We have transcripts taken from FBI documents, emails, articles, handwritten notes, an extravagant and detailed emergency room bill, and all the gossip-filled correspondences from Galer Street. In short: It’s a hoot to read through.

The longer overview:

  • I’ve been in the mood for a book that resembles Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere ever since I completed it about a year ago, so the premise of Where’d You Go, Bernadette exploring the rich white neighborhood of Galer Street, but also introducing complex components that have us in this love-to-hate relationship with certain characters (*ahem* Aubrey) had me intrigued.
  • I have to grant it to Bernadette, though, for first catching my attention with this spiel on the overpowering energy it requires to simply be with people:

“The only way to get to Antarctica is by cruise ship. Even the smallest one has 150 passengers, which translates into me being trapped with 149 other people who will uniquely annoy the hell out of me with their rudeness, waste, idiotic questions, incessant yammering, creepy food requests, boring small talk, etc. Or worse, they might turn their curiosity toward me, and expect pleasantry in return. I’m getting a panic attack just thinking about it. A little social anxiety never hurt anyone, am I right?”

  • All the praise was raving about how hilarious this book was, so I kept an eye out for some uproarious laughter to consume me only to realize that Where’d You Go, Bernadette doesn’t feature that in-your-face outrageous humor but rather the everyday kind where you’re talking and just are on the same wavelength of humor when talking and sharing. It’s so nice to see it play out on the page.

“See, I never thought through the actual implication of you applying to boarding schools. I.e., that you’d be leaving us. But really, it’s fine with me if you run off. I’ll still see you every day.”
I glowered at her.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” she said. “I’m going to move to Wallingford and rent a house off campus. I already got a job working in the Choate dining hall.”
“Don’t even joke,” I said.”

This right here made a smile creep up on my face because it’s Bernadette’s only upper hand as a mother to a teen. It’s the good-humored kind of family jokes where you just know each other well enough to know what ticks them off and what doesn’t.

The kind of humor that makes you feel good, not at the cost of someone, unless, of course, we’re talking about… Dun Dun Duuuuun:

  • Audrey Griffin aka “call-the-manager” type of person:

Honesty, the skill it takes to somehow turn the events around so that everyone but her is at blame is astonishing. You do not want to be in her favor. Or ever owe her anything ever. A great example of this are her letters to the director of Gaylor Street School, Gwen Goodyear:

“Speaking of Warren, he’s looking into the legality of letting a student who’s a known drug abuser finish out the semester. Isn’t that a threat to the other students? I’m asking out of curiosity.
If you’re so hell-bent on placing blame, I suggest you look in the mirror.”

Bam. Her letters to fallible Gwen Goodyear were always a ruckus. She emits that passive-aggressiveness that’s more like aggressive-aggressiveness, and it’s something else to experience from the sidelines.

Also, her accomplice Soo-Lin who’s a known homewrecker (TIME-OUT REALITY CHECK: honestly, I’m perplexed as to what good she thought would come out of chasing after a married man????) (the married man in question is a cheat, as well, for trying to neatly pack up his wife, instead of questioning what’s going on and actually communicate his thoughts to her.) So I wasn’t mad at Audrey for handling Soo-Lin some dose of aggressive-aggressiveness;

“How’s this for irony? Remember when you were divorcing Barry, and Warren handled the whole thing for you gratis, saving you thirty thousand dollars? Remember when you literally sobbed in gratitude, promising you’d make it up to us? Here’s your chance! I’ll let myself in with the key under the cupid.
One question. What do you want for dinner? I’m going to have a feast waiting when you get home.
Blessings, you!”

As well as, Bernadette getting to take her own jab at Soo-Lin’s expense: “FOX: You’re a Seattle-born secretary and you have no place in this house!”

You do not get to wreck a home and expect to go by unscathed. You do not mess up someone’s marriage just because they’re unhappy in it. That is nowhere your place to intervene. I received some closure when Soo-Lin had her moment of realization, alas a tad too late.

Surprisingly, Audrey Griffin grew to have the most the most character development, but the writing didn’t demonstrate it thoroughly with the constant skimming over her life. I wanted to hear more on Audrey and her son, Kyle, getting better. Kyle is a jackass with his antics, but he’s on the road to redemption with his unrelating, force-of-nature mother by his side.

One of those antics relate to Bee:

“(We weren’t allowed to wait in the office ever since Kyle Griffin was sent there one day, and when nobody was looking he went through the Galer Street directory and started calling all the parents from the main office number. So when the parents looked at their cell phones, it said there was an incoming call from Galer Street. They’d answer, and Kyle screamed, “There’s been an accident!” and hung up. From then on, all the kids had to wait outside.)”

  • The praise for this book also mentioned how it’s full of emails and letters, so I assumed they were interspersed throughout the chapters, but nope, they mean what they say. Where’d You Go, Bernadette starts with the Branch family then veers off into different characters orbiting them by sneaking into their personal exchanges and interaction. It makes for a particularly entertaining epistolary format, similar perhaps to Illuminae in a contemporary setting. I love dialogue-driven stories so transcript and emails are my favorite things to speed through a book.
  • I was surprised to find that it was solely told in that medium until the investigation concerning Bernadette’s whereabouts reaches a dead-end, and we return to the usual chapter format. So the characters get to comment on the first half of the book, aka the bunch of concentrated files, and they get to say what we’d been thinking throughout.

“You were a real rock star, Dad, walking down the aisle of the Microsoft Connector.”
“I didn’t write that!”
“Your girlfriend did!”

  • However, I feel like so much of this book focused on the action of getting to Antarctica and reconnecting the clues on Bernadette’s whereabouts (when in reality it’s just a major case of miscommunication) that we kind of missed expanding on the character-driven aspect of this story. I mean, the main conflict of the book is in the title, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, but it’s about so much more than piecing together clues. It’s about family and owning up to your mistakes and coming of age and mother-daughter connections. The last one I had the most joy uncovering.

“I was going through an Abbey Road phase because I had just read a book about the last days of the Beatles, and I spent most of breakfast telling Mom about it.”

I wanted more moment like this that show how supportive and close Bee and Bernadette are… like with their mutual love for Cliff Mass, the weather boy *echo of wouldn’t you like to know weather-boy* who likes to uses fancy words and long-winded sentences to essentially say it’s just raining.

Oh my God, can someone please stop me before I write more about Cliff Mass?”

These revealing moments I found to be missing in the whirlwind to keep up with the plot. Details help me fall into a story and the characters, as it was written so wisely in Mitch Albom’s For One More Day: Details were something to grab on to, a way to insert myself into the story.

  • Going back to the start, Bernadette’s vulnerability when Bee was born struck a chord.

“Here’s what inconsolable looks like: me sitting in my car in the parking lot of Children’s Hospital, all the windows rolled up, wearing my hospital gown, twelve inches of pads between my legs and Elgie’s parka over my shoulders, Elgie standing outside in the dark, trying to make me out through fogged windows. I was all torture and adrenaline. I had no thoughts, no emotions. Inside me roiled something so terrible that God knew he had to keep my baby alive, or this torrent within me would be unleashed on the universe.”

She needed some sunshine after the big dark cloud that had been following her for years. And it came in the form of her daughter Bee.

“Was I really so bad that I deserved to have three years of my life destroyed for some rich prick’s practical joke? So I had some cars towed, yes. I made a gate out of trash doorknobs. I’m an artist. I won a MacArthur grant, for fuck’s sake. Don’t I get a break? I’ll be watching TV and see Nigel Mills-Murray’s name at the end. I’ll go nuts inside. He gets to keep creating, and I’m the one who’s still in pieces?”

I wanted to delve deeply into moments like these that came to shape the family.

  • Lastly, Elgie Branch does not deserve Bernadette in this universe or any alternate creation. Their relationship was another aspect that wasn’t expanded on, so I had nothing to hold on as to why these two even got together in the first place to start a family. So Elgie and his brash decision making can jump into infinity and beyond.

“You look for horses,” I said. “While you spent your whole life at work, me and Mom were having the best, funnest time ever. Mom and I lived for each other. She wouldn’t do anything close to getting drunk and walking next to a ship’s balcony because it would mean she might never see me again. That you think she would shows how little you know her. You look for horses, Dad.”

Bee knows Bernadette; you don’t.

Thank you for coming to my #4-most-watched TEDTalk of all time.

“From: Audrey Griffin
To: Soo-Lin Lee-Segal
I don’t give a fig about Ted. I don’t know who he is and I don’t care what he says during this talk you refuse to shut up about.”

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Returning To the Starting Point: My (Book)Spoilery Review of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

“You’d rather make up a fantasy version of somebody in your head than be with a real person.”

Knowing this book would be waiting for me upon completing Always and Forever, Lara Jean made it a bittersweet reading experience, revisiting where it all started.

I took a bit of an odd journey with this series, what with watching the Netflix adaption first (having read the first two books back in 2015, I counted on my scarce memory to have my back when watching the film), then turning to reading P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han to refill on the charm that is John Ambrose McClaren, and having to top it off with Always and Forever, Lara Jean. Now, here we are at the end of the road with To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before where it all starts: Chris’s leather jacket. She must’ve been right about how bomb that jacket is because it’s pretty much what stirred all the following events to fall into domino-like place.

All this leads to me finally taking notice of the titles for the series, which all add up to read like a letter: Book 1 is the opening line: To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Book two is when you want to add something quickly, just before the end: P.S. I Still Love You. And book three is the big finale: Always and Forever, Lara Jean.

Let’s recount:

  • Coming into this from the last book, it’s interesting to see the many parallel lines drawn between Margot and Lara Jean’s coming-of-age, from leaving home for the first time to first loves and taking care of your family. Margot is one of the most fascinating characters to me in how she took on so much responsibility at such a young age, so my heart went out to her when she finally shared just how much she has to calculate her every move because there are two little sisters looking up to her:

“You know what Mommy would always say to me?” She lifts her chin higher. “ ‘Take care of your sisters.’ So that’s what I did. I’ve always tried to put you and Kitty first. Do you have any idea how hard it was being so far away from you guys? How lonely it was? All I wanted to do was come back home, but I couldn’t, because I have to be strong. I have to be”—she struggles for a breath—“the good example. I can’t be weak. I have to show you guys how to be brave. Because . . . because Mommy isn’t here to do it.”

She couldn’t even afford to be vulnerable about her aching for them because she needs to set an example. My heart sings when she’s with her little sisters. She somehow knows exactly what to say to get them moving in the right diction.

“When other adults find out that my dad is a single father of three girls, they shake their heads in admiration, like How does he do it? How does he ever manage that all by himself? The answer is Margot.”

  • Which brings me to my next point: LJ’s infatuation with Josh returning conveniently with Margot’s absence is more of a sign of her clinging onto someone that’s similar to her sister, rather than LJ’s radical love for him.
  • I appreciate how close the film for TATBILB stuck to the source material. I recalled zero-to-none events going into, so it caught me off-guard that the running track where Peter first tells Lara Jean about receiving the letter is present in both the book and movie.

The edit nails it, especially in this scene:

During chemistry, Peter writes me a note that says, Can I come over tonight to study for the test?
I write back, I don’t remember study sessions being in the contract. After he reads it, he turns around and gives me a wounded look. I mouth, I’m kidding!”

  • The film succeeds in granting book Lara Jean her wish during the horror revelation of Peter Kavinsky’s letter:

“It came in the mail? To your house?”
“Yeah.”
I feel faint. I actually feel faint. Please let me faint right now, because if I faint I will no longer be here, in this moment. It will be like in movies when a girl passes out from the horror of it all and the fighting happens while she is asleep and she wakes up in a hospital bed with a bruise or two, but she’s missed all the bad stuff. I wish that was my life instead of this.”

  • As soon as I started reading so many incidents from the book came rolling back into my mind, and it made me recall how utterly hilarious To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is. I read it right after completing the Harry Potter series with The Deathly Hallows, after which I felt… hallow… so having this book suck me right in, which I deemed an impossible task right then, had me beaming.

I remember, in particular, hysterically laughing at LJ’s incident with Margot’s doll (bonus points for naming her Rochelle) and the toothpaste. It had me in fits of laughter for days, so much so that I took a screenshot to keepsake on my phone for those much-needed pick-me-up moments. For old times’ sake, I have to share it here:

“Rochelle was Margot’s only doll. She adored her. I remember begging Margot to let me hold her, just for a second, but Margot always said no. There was this one time, I had a cold, and I stayed home from school. I crept into Margot’s room and I took Rochelle, I played with her all afternoon, I pretended Rochelle and I were best friends. I got it into my head that Rochelle’s face was actually kind of plain; she would look better with lipstick on. It would be a favor to Margot if I made Rochelle more beautiful. I got one of Mommy’s lipsticks out of her bathroom drawer and I put some on her lips. Right away I knew it was a mistake. I’d drawn it on outside of her lip lines, she looked clownish, not sophisticated. So then I tried to clean off the lipstick with toothpaste, but it only made her look like she had a mouth disease. I hid under my blankets until Margot came home. When she found the state Rochelle was in, I heard Margot’s scream.”

That scream in my head is so dramatic.

Funnily enough, revisiting those scenes that were so big in my head, now reduced themselves on the page. Same with the epic Halloween scene that I had a weakness for, where I recalled Peter and Kitty bonding, but in my mind, it was with words and not through their (epic) dance-off. In reality, I only laughed at the memory of laughing while rereading.

But still, we have to share them moves:

“Our big finish is splits, with our arms crossed for emphasis.
Peter’s bowled over, laughing his head off. He claps and claps and stomps his feet.
When it’s over, I try to catch my breath and manage to say, “Okay, you’re up, Kavinsky.”
“I can’t,” Peter gasps. “How do I follow a performance like that? Kitty, will you teach me that pop-and-lock move?”
Kitty gets shy all of a sudden. She sits on her hands and looks at him through her lashes and shakes her head.
“Please, please?” he asks.
Kitty finally caves in—I think she just wanted to make him work for it. I watch them dance all afternoon, my little sister the ninja and my pretend boyfriend Spider-Man. First I laugh, but then a worrying thought comes out of nowhere—I can’t let Kitty get too attached to Peter. This is temporary. The way Kitty looks at him, so adoringly, like he’s her hero. . . .”

Honestly so, so mad the movie missed this epic opportunity to show them off like this…

  • I have to circle back on Lara Jean and Peter way back to her first letter because I didn’t remember a thing she wrote, so I have to say I was beyond impressed with thirteen-year-old LJ:

“And now that the year is almost over, I know for sure that I am also over you. I’m immune to you now, Peter. I’m really proud to say that I’m the only girl in this school who has been immunized to the charms of Peter Kavinsky. All because I had a really bad dose of you in seventh grade and most of eighth. Now I never ever have to worry about catching you again. What a relief! I bet if I did ever kiss you again, I would definitely catch something, and it wouldn’t be love. It would be an STD!”

Savagery.

I low-key piqued at future Lara Jean in Always and Forever, Lara Jean because she had the perfect opportunity to revisit this letter she wrote to her seemingly dream-boy to catch her reaction now, and it was totally brushed aside. The timing was perfect, as well, given her confused state on how things will move forward, she could’ve gone back to how it all started.

  • Since this book chronicles the start of Lara Jean’s thing with Peter, it now makes sense as to why in the following books LJ is constantly on his case, bickering and teasing, given that is how they started out. They’re pretty much hate-to-love, at this point.

“I think throwing Peter off guard could be a fun hobby for me.”

Since Peter K.’s confidence depends upon the approval of others, they start hitting it off when Lara Jean gets along well with Peter’s lacrosse team buddies. Also, of course, his mother’s approval.

Personally, I really came to appreciate the tiny gestures and acts of kindness Peter extended towards Lara Jean, even something as simple as holding her backpack for her. Or that incomparable scene of him coming over to Lara Jean’s to invite her to a game, which leads to him helping out with the cupcakes for Kitty’s PTA bake sale, featuring that one moment that makes everyone stop for a beat:

“Well, if it’s for Kitty, then Kitty should be helping.” Peter hops off the stool and comes up to me and slides his hands around my waist and tries to untie my apron strings. “Where is the kid?”
I stare at him. “What . . . are you doing?”
Peter looks at me like I’m a dummy. “I need an apron too if I’m going to help. I’m not trying to get my clothes all messed up.”

Kitchen scenes with getting all up in each other’s personal space GET TO ME. I can’t help but think of this moment with Noora and William from Skam when he’s preparing her cocoa drink and subtly leans over:

When Peter ends up helping Kitty out with her experiment, while waiting for Lara Jean to get ready, it was the cherry on top of one of the best scenes in the book for me.

“I run to Margot’s room for her big grandpa cardigan, and I pass Kitty’s open door, where I see Peter and Kitty lying on the floor, working with her lab set.”

While I’m at it, talking lazy circles around each other in the library is something I’m always here for:

“What do you and Chris even talk about?” he asks. “You have nothing in common.”
“What do we talk about?” I counter.
Peter laughs. “Point taken.” He pushes away from the wall and puts his head in my lap, and I go completely still.
I try to make my voice sound normal as I say, “You’re in a really strange mood today.”
He raises an eyebrow at me. “What kind of mood am I in?” Peter sure loves to hear about himself. Normally, I don’t mind, but today I’m not in the mood to oblige him. He already has too many people in his life telling him how great he is.
“The obnoxious kind,” I say, and he laughs.
“I’m sleepy.” He closes his eyes and snuggles against me. “Tell me a bedtime story, Covey.”

Also, the quick road trip to an estate sale, bothering to bring each other food (donuts and a sandwich) and getting to know each other by asking random questions, like specifying your absolute favorite food, or racing The Epsteins, was a nice bonding moment. Though his constant lateness is starting to trip me up…

He’s very loyal to his people, but I feel like the main conflict for him is that he doesn’t quite know where his loyalties lie within this book: Genevieve or Lara Jean. Which makes for some hair-pulling annoying scenes.

  • I got weirdly emotional with Chris in this book, what with returning to her younger days and her angst after seeing her in Always and Forever, Lara Jean. My heart squeezes at the memory of them. She’ll grow so much.
  • My only hindrance is that I chose to read this on Yom Kippur, knowing this was the only light-hearted book that would keep me intact, but I didn’t account for the fact that Lara Jean’s whole life circles baked goods and at a certain point it got to be too much for me. There are SO MANY MEALS discussed here, including the intricate details of making them, and I was bursting to shout “Some of us are hungry, Lara Jean…”
  • I was a tiny bit worried that I’d get stuck on the fact this is the Hebrew translated version since I’m always wondering how it was worded in the original when reading translated fiction. But I was pleasantly surprised to find said feeling diminished while reading TATBILB (could be because I originally read it in English, but still). Interestingly enough, Gen and (Lara) Jean are written the same way in Hebrew: ג׳ין, which made me ponder.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 09.46.55It’s been so long since I devoted myself so fully to marathon a series of books. The last was with Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, and not to sound like Granny Lara Jean, as Chris (and Peter) so lovingly calls her, but it was the best of times. If you have a good book waiting for you at home, practically nothing can touch you.

If you’re interested in buying To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, just click on the image below to go through my Amazon Affiliate. I’ll make a small commission!

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July 2018: Books & Movies

July was full of various reads, including plays, parenting books, poetry collections, and a bunch of great library discoveries. The month felt incredibly satisfying reading-wise, which has been a long time coming this year. In total, nine books were read and reviewed:

Books that made my month:

How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish.

How can I express my honest feelings in a way that will make it possible for the other person to hear me and even consider what I have to say?

As I mention in my review for the book, I wholeheartedly stand behind the belief that through our interactions with children we can learn how to behave respectfully to our surroundings; patience, kindness, and acceptance should be shown to all. So I’ve been diving into more books of the kind (and endlessly and unknowingly comparing them to this book), while listening to a bunch of lectures on the subject of gentle parenting, as well. They have been a fruitful source for my learning.

Circling back to the book, the comic illustrations really aide with visually representing the points. I included in my review some of my favorites that I make sure to implement in my personal life. The below idea, in particular, left quite the positive impression:

Instead of Angry Reprimands …How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk 2-- bookspoils

Movies that made my month:

July also being my birth month, I had the privilege to invite my younger sister along to her first-ever cinema experience by watching the Incredibles 2. She’s a huge fan of the first movie and with this much-anticipated release out in the world, it only seemed right to take her along. In the end, I felt so grateful that I got to partake in this memorable experience for her and can only hope and pray for many more to come and share together.

In terms of the movie, we had a grand time watching the relatable family dynamic, especially with the siblings. There were many laugh-out-loud moments, which, funnily enough, became the ones to stay in my head the most from the whole film.

A few of my highlights:

A play-by-play replica of something I’d tell my sister.

As well as Bob “Mr. Incredible” & Dash tackling “new math” together:

I so cherished family scenes showing the realness behind parenting with the trials and errors that Bob took on; it was weirdly comforting to watch.

Finally, I have to veer off a bit to give a quick shout-out to The Office for creating this epic birthday scene:

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 09.46.55

That was my July wrap-up, thank you for reading!

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