Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

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This funny, voice-driven novel is a mystery buried in an imploding family wrapped in a ranting email. The main narrator is 15-year-old Bee, a precocious, sassy girl whose mom, Bernadette Fox, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Bernadette is brilliant but incredibly eccentric, an architect who had won a MacArthur grant, but who stopped practicing when her daughter was born. Her unexpressed creativity turns inward, making her anxious and self-destructive. I really found the obsessive way she worked, her creative self-immolation and her journey back to the art she loved, fascinating, inspiring, and hopeful. The setting is Seattle, where the culture of software companies and progressive private schools provide plenty of fodder for jokes and ridiculous situations. There are also interesting questions about the burdens and obligations of contributing to a community and being neighbors. This book features the best, most introspective and unexpected villain about-face I can recall. I really had fun reading this one.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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I will have to say one thing for sure–this book is hard to put down. It kept me interested, to say the least. It was so sick and twisted–I was like a rubbernecker, I couldn’t look away. There are several big surprises, and I’m finding it impossible to write about the book at all without including spoilers. So you’ve been warned.

It was absolutely chilling to watch a marriage go from perfect to adulterous to mutually murderous to coerced. I found myself agreeing with some of Amy’s diatribes, especially her rant about the ‘cool girl.’ And that taught me something kind of scary about myself. Because as horrifying a monster as she undoubtedly is, there is a sense that Amy is a product of her family and her society. The kernel of truth in her nastiest, most cynical pronouncements about men and relationships comes from real inequality that I’ve experienced just as much as Amy has, and so I could have the same horrible, self-righteous urges she has.

Amy’s capacity to scheme and plot and cold-bloodedly execute her plan makes her the smartest villain I’ve read about in a while. She’s right that this is why she succeeds where others fail. A good plot like the one she concocts does need months and months of preparation and groundwork, and very few people would have the chilly resolve necessary. Her plan was truly masterful, and even after a few last-minute changes. My favorite touch was the clues that could be read in two ways by two audiences, Nick and the cops. She wins in the end, but Nick is able to redeem himself through regaining a sense of his own goodness. And Amy’s victory is hollow, of course. It seems like Nick might even be able to love her again someday, but she will always know that she forced that love out of him. Though it seems like sincere affection matters less to her than her definition of ‘winning.’ I liked the complexity of this ending.

Though by the end he’s clearly the ‘good guy,’ Nick is a jerk, to be as nice about it as possible. Once he revealed his affair, I had a hard time sympathizing with him. From beginning to end, I never felt like I saw quite enough sincere contrition from him, but only attempts to save his own hide through faking remorse. He was honest about how sleazy his affair was, and how cowardly it was as a marriage exit plan, but he still acted entitled to it. When I heard Ben Affleck was playing him in the movie, I thought that was inspired casting, entirely appropriate based on the description–a guy so good-looking you just know he’s a smug asshole.

I would have appreciated it if one character had spoken up and said how horrible it is for a woman to fake being raped, how disrespectful it is toward real rape victims who have to deal with people doubting their charges for this very reason. Or if Amy had noted that she had to make a point of fabricating incontrovertible physical evidence because she knows how much scrutiny rape victims face. Something to put her actual faked rape in the context of real rape victims constantly being accused of making up their trauma.

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma by Trenton Lee Stewart

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This book is the third of a trilogy, so it’s mostly concerned with tying up loose ends from the two previous books. As the novel opens, the four children are living in Mr. Benedict’s compound with their families because they need protection. The Whisperer, the villain Mr. Curtain’s mind control device, is there with them as well, in a kind of limbo because no one can agree on what to do with it. (One particularly sinister possibility that’s raised is that the government may want to use it to brainwash citizens.) The action really gets started when Mr. Curtain attacks Mr. Benedict’s home and the children are captured. They follow clues and solve riddles in the same way they did in previous books, driving the action with cute little brain-teasers. Constance’s telepathy proves particularly convenient in their escape attempts.

Mr. Curtain was probably my favorite part of this book. He was really reveling in his villainy this time, circling the children eight times with his motorized wheelchair while gloating about their capture. At the climax, he recognized his defeat and even found a bit of redemption in the love and loyalty of one of his minions. The ending is about as happy as happy can be, with even Mr. Benedict’s narcolepsy cured. There are some nice morals about teamwork and personal responsibility. Everything is phrased in a light, whimsical tone, rife with wordplay and hyperbole.

I think I was somewhat less charmed by this book than I was by the previous two, perhaps because it seemed so similar to them. I feel like ideally each book in a series should have something slightly new to offer. However, I’m sure that a child reader who enjoyed the first two novels would appreciate the chance to spend more time with the characters.

Possession

Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession is about a couple of young British academics in the 1980s who discover a set of love letters between two (fictional) Victorian poets. The novel tells the story of both the contemporary and 19th century lovers as the scholars investigate. Once the mystery of the letters begins to unravel, the book is hard to put down. It’s a long novel, and dense with language and big ideas, but the urgency of the mystery makes the pages fly by.

Christabel LaMotte, the Victorian lady poet, is by far the book’s most fascinating and mysterious character. I think of her as a slightly more outspoken and direct English version of reclusive Emily Dickinson. Some of her writing style, especially the dashes, elisions, and elaborate metaphors, remind me of Dickinson. She’s a protofeminist who talks about how “The best [response women writers] may hope is–oh, it is excellently done–for a woman” (197).  When she is pregnant out of wedlock, she refuses to play the role of “fallen woman,” holding herself aloof and snarking at a cousin who just wants to help. That attitude seemed startlingly modern to me.

The novel delves into ideas about how love takes away autonomy; both the 19th and 20th century couples are concerned with losing themselves in a relationship. It’s also about the way literature can be fuel for love: LaMotte and Ash fall in love through writing letters, and Maude and Roland through reading their letters. Another topic: interpretations and misinterpretations of literature. Uncovering the affair between LaMotte and Ash sheds new light on all their works, and shows some earlier interpretations–like the idea of LaMotte as a woman with exclusively homosexual desires–to be erroneous. It’s mind-boggling to extend that idea to all the millions of things we readers can never know about the texts we read and their authors, and how that partial information can lead us to make big mistakes in interpretation. 

Professor Cropper, the villain, is a bit of a caricature, an acquisitive American academic determined to buy England’s literary patrimony. Attempts to humanize him in the beginning of the novel, focusing on how he gave his life to the study of another man’s work, and therefore produced nothing original, leading to a pretty meaningless existence, arouse nothing but pity. Is pity a good emotion to feel for a villain? I’m not sure. Once you start to feel that way about him, he becomes virtually powerless, and you know he’ll lose. Having a villain is what gives some urgency to the quest to find the documents and solve the mystery, because the heroes have to gain the rights and publish before he does. And Cropper is the one who does the unthinkable–dig up a grave–to uncover the final piece of the puzzle. Without him, the story would be slower, more wandering, and with a less satisfying, if overly coincidental, ending.

The most impressive thing about the book is the way that Byatt wrote 19th-century-style poetry and prose and interspersed it with the more contemporary story. These sections really read like something that an author of that period might have written, and are dense and expressive enough that they would stand up well to scrutiny in a college lit classroom.

I really enjoyed Possession; it’s a book about readers’ relationships with the authors and texts they love. I guess that makes it meta and explains why it appeals to me. The title’s meaning is multifaceted, applying to ownership of documents, spiritual possession, self-possession, and relationships that possess one with desire, among other ideas. It’s a thinking book, but that doesn’t mean it’s all philosophizing. It’s also mystery and chase and poetry and love story.