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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Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

“I was raised among books, making invisible friends in pages that seemed cast from dust and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day. ”

Just as I was thinking to myself how implausibly good it feels not having DNF’ed a book in a long while, The Shadow of the Wind comes into my life.

I went into this pretty open-minded expecting a book about loving books and reading, instead I receive a pretentious piece of confusing fiction, trying to appear smarter than it really is. Plus, having it use one of my most hated writing techniques of telling with little to no showing. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough we then have the dialogue whose sole job in this book is to convey information. There’s not even one point where the author tried to humanize the characters by making them appear more complex and dynamic, as one would expect. Or achieving that feeling of creating “characters who seemed as real to me as my surroundings.” Instead both the dialogue and the action grew extremely stilted the more I read on.

Take for example this next passage that had me saying enough is enough:

“Bea, wait.”
I cursed myself and ran after her. I stopped her halfway down the corridor, grabbing her by the arm. She threw me a burning look.
“I’m sorry. But you’re wrong: it’s not your fault, it’s mine. I’m the one who isn’t as good as your brother. And if I’ve insulted you, it’s because I’m jealous of that idiot boyfriend of yours and because I’m angry to think that someone like you would follow him to El Ferrol. It might as well be the Congo.”
“Daniel . . .”
“You’re wrong about me, because we can be friends if you let me try, now that you know how worthless I am. And you’re wrong about Barcelona, too, because you may think you’ve seen everything, but I can guarantee that’s not true. If you’ll allow me, I can prove it to you.”
I saw a smile light up and a slow, silent tear fall down her cheek.
“You’d better be right,” she said. “Because if you’re not, I’ll tell my brother, and he’ll pull your head off like a stopper.”

No one talks like that in real life… Also, this passage shows just how utterly lazy the author is with his writing by making two characters that were supposed enemies (literally) one page ago “bond” by appearing in the same location. It’s pretty obvious that instead of creating a new multifaceted character, Zafón opted to reuse a character we already know, who has a boyfriend, mind you, and have the main character be suddenly infatuated…

Also, this next passage illustrates my point perfectly of the dialogue being between detective and suspect.

“Are you a collector?”
“Something like that.”
“Do you have other books by Carax?”
“I’ve had them at some point. Julián Carax is my specialty, Daniel. I travel the world in search of his books.”
“And what do you do with them if you don’t read them?”
The stranger made a stifled, desperate sound. It took me a while to realize that he was laughing.
“The only thing that should be done with them, Daniel,” he answered.
He pulled a box of matches out of his pocket. He took one and struck it. The flame showed his face for the first time. My blood froze. He had no nose, lips, or eyelids. His face was nothing but a mask of black scarred skin, consumed by fire. It was the same dead skin that Clara had touched.
“Burn them,” he whispered, his voice and his eyes poisoned by hate.”

Please, don’t write dialogue just to convey information to the reader. I want to read and feel emotions from the characters, not like I’m reading a transcript from a court case.

It’s been too long since I’ve last been this heated over my lack of interest with a book. And I least of all expected it to be The Shadow of the Wind, which has such beautiful quotes here on Goodreads.

“As I walked in the dark through the tunnels and tunnels of books, I could not help being overcome by a sense of sadness. I couldn’t help thinking that if I, by pure chance, had found a whole universe in a single unknown book, buried in that endless necropolis, tens of thousands more would remain unexplored, forgotten forever. I felt myself surrounded by millions of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot.”

And that’s exactly what rendered me the most dissatisfied. The fact that most of the well-known quotes are taken from the first 100 pages of the book left me feeling exasperated, so much so that I couldn’t come up with one reason to continue reading. I didn’t care at all for the cardboard characters with zero storyline, so I had to put The Shadow of the Wind down after just 115 pages. And frankly, I have no regrets.

I will say, though, that this book had magnificent moments at the start when I put in the effort to listen to instrumental music (like this playlist). It heightens the reading experience by a landslide. The book goes from an effort to read to feeling like you’re watching a movie, which is why I was eager to look into whether this had any adaptions in the works… But unfortunately the author “will not sell the rights to any studio” because “he says that the story was written in order to be a book and we don’t want to lose the magic in a movie.” Figures…

no rating

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Review: Thornhill by Pam Smy

“We are the voiceless ones.”

Parallel stories set in different times, one told in prose and one in pictures, converge as a girl unravels the mystery of the abandoned Thornhill Institute next door.

1982: Mary is a lonely orphan at the Thornhill Institute For Children at the very moment that it’s shutting its doors. When her few friends are all adopted or re-homed and she’s left to face a volatile bully alone, her revenge will have a lasting effect on the bully, on Mary, and on Thornhill itself.

2017: Ella has just moved to a new town where she knows no one. From her room on the top floor of her new home, she has a perfect view of the dilapidated, abandoned Thornhill Institute across the way, where she glimpses a girl in the window. Determined to befriend the girl and solidify the link between them, Ella resolves to unravel Thornhill’s shadowy past.

Told in alternating, interwoven plotlines—Mary’s through intimate diary entries and Ella’s in bold, striking art—Pam Smy’s Thornhill is a haunting exploration of human connection, filled with suspense.

This tale set in alternate times, one told in words and the other in drawings, sounded right up my alley when I discovered it back in May. In particular because it reminded me a lot of  Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck, which had a similar format of storytelling that I loved. Unlike that one, though, Thornhill is a creepy and disquieting ghost story. That is to say: I was racing to finish reading it before sunset because I’m not about to be scared out of leaving my bedroom… again, since ghosts are one of my greatest fears, thanks to watching the horrendous film called The Sixth Sense at night when I was just eight years old. (I thought at the time that I was brave and cool and that it wouldn’t be as eerie as the blurb made it seem.) (Oh, how wrong I was.)

“I like the noise of being surrounded by a group. It’s as though there are little stories whizzing around—dreams of pop groups and boyfriends, gossip about eyeliner and shoes and teachers. I don’t have to join in, but still I feel part of their gang—on the edges looking in, watching, listening, but happy to be included.”

Circling back to the book, a pleasant surprise came to me with the drawings, which wasn’t what I expected in terms of style before reading. I feel like ages have passed since I last sat down and enjoyed a proper book. But I was a bit disheartened to see that the art was on the lower side compared to the prose. Overtime, I actually came to look forward most to what the story would convey through these black and white drawings.

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But for now I’m definitely on the lookout for a more lighthearted read after the eeriness left by Thornhill. I mean, that ending surely raised the hair on the back of my neck. Shudders.

3/5 stars

Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Thornhill, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!