I have finally got round to reading ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ by Maria Semple which was the only book shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction that I didn’t manage to read before the winner was announced in June. It tells the story of Bernadette Fox, an award-winning architect who lives in Seattle with her husband, Elgie, who works for Microsoft and their teenage daughter, Bee. For various reasons, Bernadette loathes Seattle and one day, she simply disappears, leaving Bee to compile a series of emails, letters, police reports and other correspondence in order to find her mother.
I can see how the structure of epistolary novels is appealing to authors who want to cover the viewpoints of several characters in different styles. For the most part, Semple handles the structure of the format very well and uses it inventively. However, as with many epistolary novels, I don’t think it is very realistic to include long passages of dialogue in letters and diary entries. I also hadn’t expected Semple to abandon the format completely for the last sixty pages or so and return to a more conventional form of writing but I suppose it is better to do that than to continue using it when it isn’t necessary.
Unlike some books which are advertised as being “humorous”, ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ really is very funny in a blackly comic way. The satire is sharp, particularly on Seattle and the helicopter parents of privately educated children. The characters are crazy and dysfunctional but not in a farcical or unlikeable way as I found with ‘May We Be Forgiven’ by A. M. Homes who coincidentally won this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Instead, I thought they were all quite endearing in their own way.
I am not too surprised that ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ didn’t win the Women’s Prize for Fiction but I did enjoy its quirkiness and it was nice to see a more light-hearted book make it on to a shortlist for a major book award among the more self-consciously literary novels. Overall, it’s a very good read.