Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Copyright 2012. Fiction. ISBN 9780316204262

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Story:

Bernadette Fox—genius, architect, agoraphobe—has gone missing, and no one seems to know how or why. Then her fifteen-year-old daughter decides she’s had enough of the ambiguity and begins to do a little detective work, following a digital and paper trail to piece together where her mother went, and exactly who she is.

Style and Plot:

Where’d You Go, Bernadette circles around an upper-class family in modern Seattle: Bee (short for Balakrishna) is the exceptionally smart teen daughter, Elgin Branch is an important Microsoft employee who is married to Bernadette Fox, a woman introverted to the max and the scourge of her daughter’s school. The story is told in an epistolary format through emails, notes, report cards, and hospital bills, with a few interjections and explanations from Bee as she tries to find her mother.

It’s obvious from the first few paragraphs that author Maria Semple has an excellent sense of humor and satire. Every one of her characters is distinct and has their own way of doing things, and the way they bounce off each other is half the fun. Everyone is so human: uptight, irrational, happy, crazy, flawed, real. Semple has a grasp of the way humans react and behave that few other authors are able to portray in quite the same fashion.

However, for something known as a satire, WYGB tends to go for the low-hanging fruit in its social commentary. Galer Street School, where Bee attends, is trying to become a first-pick private Montessori school, so of course its patrons are too-earnest denizens of the middle class. Of course there are granola-munching, mass-transit-taking hippies. Of course there are comments about the liberal, or sometimes lack thereof, attitudes that permeate Seattle’s atmosphere. Of course. Of course.

Several of the events over the course of the novel seem ridiculous, but for a good number of chapters they avoid falling into “unbelievable” territory by virtue of human nature— it’s easy to picture everyday people acting in the way they do within this book, and it’s all delivered very tongue-in-cheek. Unfortunately, as the book reaches its climax, it crosses the fateful line, becoming less humorous and making a reader liable to win the world record for eyebrow height.

Still, Semple has a way with words that is obvious and undeniable, and her story is engaging (because everyone loves hearing about other people’s drama). WYGB’s ending finishes strong despite the incredulity of the chapters immediately previous to it, and overall the book is fast paced, energetic, and fun—things that seem to be lacking in a lot of modern literature.

Characterization:

Where’d You Go, Bernadette begins with what is apparently an outstanding report card from the school that Bee Branch attends. The next sections are narrated by Bee, and it’s then that you realize exactly how much Bee has earned the glowing reviews her teachers heap upon her. She uses words and phrases that few young teens would know or care about, and yet Semple has managed to capture the distinct manner of speaking particular to that age group. This isn’t as much of a turn-off as it could be— instead, it adds realism to the somewhat ungrounded novel.

Bernadette herself is an enigma and a contradiction, which makes her interesting. She’s extremely introverted in person, but can and will talk the ear off of anyone when emailing or writing letters—complete with misspellings and grammar mistakes. She loves her husband and daughter dearly, but often behaves in a selfish manner. She’s both sweet and vengeful. She has opinions, she has flaws, and she is not a character to be ignored.

All of Semple’s characters seem to get the same careful treatment: each of them has something to make them stand out—even the walk-on characters have personality. Granted, there are a great many side and secondary characters to keep track of, some recurring, some not, so the book may suffer from a little overpopulation, but it doesn’t detract from the whole story. Relatable characters that act like people make a book vivacious, and that’s a trait that WYGB doesn’t lack in the least.

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a light and bright read, full of life, charm, and witticisms. 4 out of 5 stars.

 

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His Majesty’s Dragon

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik. Copyrigt 2005. Fantasy. ISBN 9780345481283

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Story:

In the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, the HMS Reliant captures a French ship carrying precious cargo: an unhatched dragon. Since dragons bond with the first person they speak to, Captain William Laurence quickly finds himself having to reluctantly change military careers from the Royal Navy to the Aerial Corps, a stigmatized yet necessary branch specializing in training, flying, and fighting with dragons.

Style and Plot:

His Majesty’s Dragon is the first of the Temeraire series, and has a very promising start: a bracing sea battle against the French frigate Amitie. The reader is immediately drawn into the events of the novel: The Amitie is captured, the dragon egg hatches, bonds with Captain Laurence, and is named after a second-rate, the HMS Temeraire, which itself was named after a French ship that had been brought into British service. The first twenty pages go by fast.

However, the action drastically slows over the course of the next few chapters. The story remains interesting (Captain Laurence’s relationship with Temeraire and his mental and social adjustment to life as an aviator being the main focus), but not nearly as gripping as the first chapter. Author Naomi Novik does a good job in describing the military functions, giving us just enough detail to get an idea of the structure, but otherwise keeping it open and leaving room for expounding as she develops her alternate history. Unfortunately, she does the same thing with the book’s surrounding events. The setting is the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, just before the Battle of Trafalgar, but it’s very easy to forget this. Despite the fact that dragons, including Temeraire, are being trained and sent off to fight in this war, it’s not mentioned very often and readers will be liable to forget about it in between mentions.

Laurence’s progression through training in the Aerial Corps is fun to read, but lacks depth. He meets some stereotypical characters: A gruff captain with a heart of gold, the imperious and ignorant noble, a few people who are disrespectful just because. Learning about how things are done in the Corps is engaging (rules and regulations in the Corps seem to be fairly lenient despite it being the military, but how can you not be impressed by a dragon giving orders to other dragons and their handlers), but since it is just training, there isn’t any real tension, and nothing too important propels the story until about halfway through the book.

Characterization:

Our main character is Captain Laurence, a rather nondescript military man. He seems to be your typical British gentleman: he’s painfully polite (read: stilted, but so is a lot of dialogue from other characters), has a distant courtship with a young woman that’s soon cut off due to his demanding reassignment, the works. He’s likable enough, but it’s the surrounding events of the novel that force him to be remarkable, and even then he sometimes feels like just a vehicle.

Temeraire, on the other hand (claw?), has all the quirks and habits that Laurence lacks. He can speak both French and English straight from the shell (not without reason). He can hover in midair, something that almost no other dragons can do, regardless of age or experience. He’s one of the rarest breeds of dragons. He even has a special name (most dragons are given Latin names, such as Maximus, only one other British dragon in the Corps has a non-traditional name). Let’s face it: Temeraire is a little bit of a Gary Stu (Scaly Stu, in this case). However, his character as a revolutionary-minded dragon does cast some fascinating implications over the rest of the series, as he questions the way things are done and is often looking for better ways to do things.

The dragon Temeraire and Captain Laurence have an interesting relationship. Due to the sheer amount of attention dragons need during their training, members of the Aerial Corps are well-known for having no time outside of the Corps for anything like having a family—aviators are, for all intents and purposes, married to their dragons. Temeraire and Laurence quickly bond, to the point where Laurence starts calling him “my dear,” which can be a little disconcerting, coming from the reserved captain. Novik doesn’t skimp on underlining the importance of the dragon-handler relationship, though: Dragons are bonded to their handler from birth (and one particular breed of dragons makes a point of bonding only with women, making women an important part of the military and of the novel). They are supposed to depend on each other for many things—and bad things happen if a dragon is neglected by its handler.

The changes in world history that Novik makes to accommodate her ideas are well fleshed out and engaging, but this series is coming up on its ninth book, and will need a lot more depth to carry it all the way through. His Majesty’s Dragon gets 3 ½ out of 5 stars.

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