Archives for posts with tag: Women’s Prize for Fiction

Where'd you go BernadetteBernadette is a genius. She’s a renowned architect who, about twenty years ago, suddenly stopped working. Infamously reclusive, she lives in a rundown former school for wayward girls in Seattle with her husband, Elgie, and daughter, Bee. Elgie is a genius too. He works for Microsoft as a top programmer and has the fourth most watched TED talk ever. As a present for getting into Choate boarding school Bee requests that the family take a cruise to Antarctica. As the trip draws closer Bernadette’s anxiety threatens to overwhelm her, circumstances conspire, everything comes to a head and Bernadette disappears, probably somewhere in Antarctica.

Bernadette’s story is told through a series of letters, emails, articles and reports, strung together by Bee’s narrative. Bee has fastidiously pieced together her mother’s life in the lead-up to her disappearance in the hopes it will point to where her mother went and why she’s gone.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette could just as easily be titled ‘first world problems’, that ubiquitous, snide catchcry used to downplay any complaints privileged people have about life. Normally I say, well that’s the only kind of problem I can have. Am I not allowed to complain about anything? But Bernadette takes it to a new level. She has an unflinchingly negative attitude towards everything, hates all people (except Bee and Elgie) and rants endlessly about the same pet peeves. Bernadette’s most violent rants are directed towards Seattle – the people are unfailingly nice and bland (but not quite as bad as Canadians) and too preoccupied with upward mobility and social niceties, and the city is full of five-way intersections.

Maria Semple went to Choate Rosemary Hall (which she also lampoons), and currently lives in Seattle. She admits to having hated Seattle when she first moved there, but she loves it now. So I suppose she knows what she’s making fun of. My only reference point for Seattle is from watching Frasier. I think it’s an interesting choice to so heavily mine the negatives of one particular city for comedy. If you haven’t been there it’s hard to understand how it could really be that bad.

Bernadette is witheringly elitist. To be resentful of the smallness of other people’s lives seems crazy, how does it hurt you? Maybe that’s what being an eccentric genius feels like. To a certain degree Bernadette is clearly suffering from mental illness so I couldn’t really blame her. And seen through Bee’s eyes Maria Semple manages to create sympathy for the irrepressible Bernadette. I don’t know that I liked Bernadette but I liked that her daughter loved her unconditionally. Also, the mothers at Bee’s school that Bernadette so hates (referring to them as gnats) are genuinely annoying. They’re morally superior, chastising anyone who is different or doesn’t volunteer for the school or keep their garden immaculate. In one very satisfying moment, Bee slaps chief gnat Audrey Griffen for insulting her mother.

Bee’s defence of Bernadette is valiant but it’s unhealthy. Bee gets tarnished by Bernadette’s negativity and disgust for people – when travelling through Santiago Bee sees kids playing in trash and people washing their clothes among the trash. Her response – ‘It was totally annoying, like, Would one of you just pick up the trash?’ So sad.

Semple really nails the bureaucratic bullshit of private schools – simpering parents trying to attract rich families to their school in order to, by association, awkwardly crawl their way to the top of Seattle’s social hierarchy. The Galer Street parents enlist the help of guru Ollie O., whose school rebranding letters are wonderfully obnoxious, full of cheesy catch phrases and slick jargon – he refers to the targeted rich parents as ‘Mercedes parents’. Not that anyone acting on behalf of a private school would ever be allowed to send letters out that were so honest.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette worked best when I forgot it’s supposed to be funny. I was occasionally amused but I didn’t think it was terribly funny. It is a good story though. I always wanted to know what happened next. Maybe I found it all a bit too real. I often joke that I don’t know how Julie Bowen (who plays stay-at-home mother of three Claire Dunphy on Modern Family) gets nominated for Emmys in the comedy category. Her portrayal of an uptight yet loving suburban mum is painfully true – it’s not funny, it’s deadly serious reality. I’m exaggerating slightly but still… Maybe I’m having the same reaction to Bernadette.


May We Be ForgivenHarry and George Silver are brothers. George is a very successful TV executive with a lovely wife and two children. Harry, the older of the two, is a history professor and Richard Nixon expert, who never reached his potential. His unfinished Nixon book haunts him. One night George gets into a car accident, killing a man and a woman, and leaving a young boy orphaned. George appears to have suffered some sort of mental breakdown, exposing a murderous temper. He then escapes from a hospital psych ward, comes home to find his wife, Jane, in bed with his brother and proceeds to bludgeon Jane to death. On discovering the adultery, Harry’s wife leaves him, he moves into George’s house, and takes custody of his kids – a son, Nate, and a daughter, Ashley. And it’s a black comedy, in case you didn’t get that from the plot.

All this happens in less than thirty pages. It’s startling. The rest of the book is, in a sense, about Harry adjusting to his new responsibilities, dealing with his guilt about Jane’s death, and creating a new family out of the wreckage of George’s crimes.

More specifically, the remainder of May We Be Forgiven is largely a series of incidents stemming from George’s breakdown, rather than a linear plot. Harry has sex with bored housewives he meets on the internet. Harry’s elderly mother gets married. He hosts Nate’s bar mitzvah in a South African village Nate helped build called Nateville. The episodic nature of the plot was particularly evident in the middle section, where an Israeli arms dealer subplot had me thinking, what the hell’s going on?

As Harry settles into his new life his routine is broken up by truly bizarre encounters with people. There’s his married nymphomaniac mistress/best friend, and the young woman Harry meets at an A&P supermarket who follows him home, has sex with him, but refuses to tell him her name, just for starters. Those two characters, in particular, are disconcertingly, unusually candid. Really all the conversations in May We Be Forgiven are strangely devoid of pretence. Everyone (including Harry) seems to just say exactly what’s on their mind. In one scene Harry is selling kittens that George’s cat had – a lady considering buying one has this encounter with Harry. She sends a text to check with her husband if she should buy the kitten, she gets back the reply ‘Use your best judgment.’

‘I think it’s an automated response’…‘He’s got a smartphone – you can program auto-responses to anything. Watch’, she says, texting back. ‘Do you want chicken or steak for dinner?’ And again, ‘Use your best judgment.’…‘He’s probably having an affair.’

Who shares that much with a complete stranger? And that’s the least of it. At times it makes for a ballsy, challenging book but sometimes it’s just ridiculous.

May We Be Forgiven is a dark book. The kind where shit just keeps happening. Each time I thought things were getting better for Harry and his motley gang of children, pets and elderly relatives something would go spectacularly wrong. But for all that goes wrong I wasn’t upset. In part because it is an amusing book but also, I didn’t connect with anyone. Every human interaction was surreal and absurd. Nothing was real. Harry blames himself for Jane’s murder, to the point where he says he’s as responsible as George. I can’t imagine what the appropriate emotional response is when your brother kills his wife in a psychotic rage in front of you but the guilt seemed forced and extreme. And Harry never even seems to really blame George, he’s barely angry with him. Satire allows for an exaggerated, outrageous version of reality, but the sense of distance Homes created meant I wasn’t terribly invested in the characters.

May We Be Forgiven is one of those books that describe all those awkward human processes – sex, diarrhoea, vomiting, eating, illness, farting, burping – in grotesque detail. It borders on scatology. Nate gets violently sick during a trip to Williamsburg, Ashley tries to remove a tampon she put in the wrong hole. I’m really not squeamish but I think Homes relied too heavily on these details. And to what end? I don’t get the point of being informed every time a character farts.

A.M. Homes is a talented writer, and an accomplished dark humorist. But often I either felt overwhelmed by the ruin George plunges his family into or stuck amongst extraneous details and strange set pieces going nowhere. That being said, May We Be Forgiven is an intriguing and ambitious novel, perhaps worth reading for Homes’s unique take on tragedy.

Gone GirlAt first I thought it was very good (but not as good as everyone’s been saying), then I thought I knew what was going to happen (and I kind of got it right), then I read the second half in a single sitting with a permanently disturbed look on my face, thinking ‘this is nuts’ over and over.

I don’t really know what to say. I feel like I can’t say a single thing about how I felt about the characters without giving everything away. I can’t really say much about the plot either. So how do I write a review? I guess I’ll just keep it short.

On their fifth wedding anniversary Nick’s wife, Amy, goes missing. There are signs of a struggle. When something happens to the wife the husband is always the prime suspect. And this case is no exception. Nick and Amy have been having problems, especially since leaving Manhattan for Missouri to be closer to Nick’s sick parents. Not only does Nick not have an alibi but he isn’t behaving like a grief-stricken husband should. And then there are the strange phone calls he’s been getting.

Gillian Flynn has written Gone Girl in the form of diary entries, switching between Amy’s diary and Nick’s. Amy and Nick’s version of events are conflicting so there’s no telling truth from lie. No one is above suspicion. They’re classic unreliable narrators (Nick more obviously so, he admits he’s lying but doesn’t say what about). Who do you believe? Does it simply come down to who’s more likeable?

Gone Girl is just one of those books that are worth reading, even if you’re not that into thrillers. Just to be able to discuss it with your friends. The second half, in particular, is what the term page-turner was invented for. Flynn clearly has fun with her tale while also posing a lot of provocative questions about relationships, men versus women, and opposites attracting. Flynn’s conception of the ‘Cool Girl’ is enough on its own to start a heated debate. Gone Girl is essentially about the break-down of a marriage. So many of the issues that plague Nick and Amy are things lots of couples go through. Except this is far from the story of a regular couple.

With Gone Girl Flynn brilliantly tackles the world of dangerous psychological games. I only had one little problem. For me, the ending strained believability. I mentioned that I sort of guessed what was going to happen but not to worry, the strength of Gone Girl’s thrill doesn’t all come from the mystery aspect. Flynn has also expertly mined the thrill of catastrophe, the thrill of being unable to tear your eyes away.