What we have here is a satirical epistolary novel about a bunch of whiny one percenters in Seattle.
Ms. Semple is sending up Seattle elites, which here seem to be typified by Bernadette's husband Elgie, a granola eating, public transport using, bike riding, Microsoft employee with a genius IQ. She also sets her sights on the students and parents of a Montessori-style preparatory school. I don't feel a particular need to explain what happens, because it's pretty well-traveled stuff.
Where BERNADETTE sets itself apart is the storytelling style. The story here takes the form of a packet of documents that Bernadette's daughter has prepared after Bernadette disappears. These include emails between Elgie's assistant and a disgruntled neighbor, emails between Bernadette and her Indian assistant Manjula, police reports, magazine articles, etc. These documents have a kind of zingy, lighthearted, ironic quality about them, and it makes for an energetic and enjoyable story. Narration between the documents is provided in brief snippets by Bernadette's precocious daughter Bee.
Alas, there are many problems, and the book never lives up to its promise. Semple is trying to have it both ways. Bernadette, for example is a ruthlessly satirized Type A East Coast transplant. We're supposed to find her ridiculous, but we're also expected to fall for her. Semple wants us to believe she's a genius because she won a MacArthur genius grant, even though there's very little else in the way of supporting evidence. She wants us to find Bernadette mysterious and admirable. But I was never really drawn in by Bernadette's positive qualities, or able to find them at all. This wouldn't have been a problem for me if it wasn't so clear that I was supposed to like her.
Also, the title and jacket copy of this book seem to promise that it's about the mysterious disappearance of, and search for, Bernadette. The problem is that Bernadette never really disappears. She leaves briefly, but her reasons for leaving are pretty clear, and it's not hard to guess where she went--the setting of Antarctica, promised by the icy mountains on the cover and tons and tons of buildup throughout, might provide a clue.
But the book suffers the most when the narration switches to Bee full time after the disappearance. This switch is somewhat painstakingly explained, but it felt lazy to me. There had to be a way to keep the form that had been so successful for the first two thirds of the book for the final act. It felt like Semple was trying to write a book that was zany, unique, and inventive, but also perfectly conventional, with all the benefits of both storytelling styles. In my mind, this book depended on the inventiveness of its epistolary style, and abandoning it was disaster.
All in all, worth reading. This is the kind of book that very well could have left me shaking my head and wondering how the author pulled it off, if only she had pulled it off. Ah, well.
I received this in ARC form from the Nervous Breakdown book club, and I hope they dress it up a bit for the hardcover. I think it would be better if the documents appeared in different forms and fonts, if Elgie's handwritten letter appeared handwritten, etc.
I can't close this review without saying that this book's cover is unfortunate. While I did have issues here, this book represents a serious effort, and it deserved a serious cover.
It will be interesting to see what Maria Semple does next.