Wednesday, February 14, 2018

What I Read: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Or rather, Var blev du av Bernadette, since I read it in Swedish.

Image courtesy Wahlström & Widstrand

Stockholm Library has ongoing book sales (rather than the yearly binge that US libraries seem to favor) and I always check the "for sale" shelves at my closest branch for anything of interest. It's usually spotty, but there have been some bright spots. This Swedish translation of Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is one of them. I'm really bad about keeping up my Swedish reading now that I'm not in class anymore, so I figured this would be a cute, easy thing to help maintain my Swedish.

If you were going to run my book reviews through an algorithm to count up the words and phrases I use the most, "I realize I'm late to the party on this one" would probably be near the top. Where'd You Go, Bernadette? was first published in 2012 and here I am, like with so many other books, just getting around to it now.

It's surprising that I didn't pick this up sooner (well, I bought my library edition back in 2016, for what it's worth), considering that the hype is in the sweet spot of "enough to get me interested, not enough to make me cynical." And book bloggers and vloggers I followed seemed to be relatively mixed—Natalie didn't care much for this book, for example. Yes, I'm way more likely to be interested in a book that some people dislike than in a book that everyone loves. That's just how I roll!

Bearing in mind that I read it in Swedish—and I say that not to poo-poo Samuelsson's translation, but rather to highlight my own lack of nuance in Swedish—I had a great time. Some of the complaints that Natalie had might have also bothered me if I'd read in English, but the gauzy veil of reading in a foreign language (even one I understand reasonably well) smoothed out some of those peaks and valleys so that I didn't mind switching back and forth from documents to Bee's narration to documents again. Bee, especially was fun to read. The best kind of teenage protagonist: sometimes insightful, sometimes naive, never stupid. (I have THOUGHTS about adults who write teenage or child protagonists and make them needlessly stupid.) And I appreciate Semple staying away from working in any kind of shoehorned romance or love interest for Bee. It's like adults who write for teenagers can only remember the boy- or girl-crazy part of teenagerdom angst, nothing else.

I will agree that the one thing that makes the transitions between sections feel sloppy is that, out of necessity, the chronology is out of whack. When the book starts, Bee's mother is still missing, and her little bit about talking to her father about Bernadette's disappearance makes it seem like Bernadette went missing years ago, rather than....weeks? I think Semple or her editor had an intuition that the timeline would be an issue here, and that's why every extract is clearly dated. I have my own opinions about how I would have handled it as a writer or editor, but whatever, those aren't that interesting!

The one thing I'm not entirely sure about is the Asian gags. There are two and half points here: the fact that Elgin's secretary (who I read as Korean-American but I realize now could also be Chinese-American) is an overall kind of insufferable character (depending on your preferences) and the one-liner Bee has comparing her to Yoko Ono. As another blog points out, this grates both because Soo-Lin is pretty obviously not Japanese, and because the "Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles!" meme is fucking tiresome. So even when Bee apologizes later for the remark and realizes how it must have come off, the "Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles" meme persists. On the other hand, Bee has just graduated middle school and so is around 14 years old. I'm sure I hated Yoko Ono when I was 14, too. Even though my favorite Beatle was/is George. So that's half a point.

It's Soo-Lin's continual gossip-y insufferability that's more cringe-inducing, especially when the only other Asian characters that appear are a group of Japanese tourists on the Antarctica cruise Bee takes with Elgin. There is an inherent fish-out-of-water humor that comes with foreign tourists, a group of people who are plopped down outside of their normal context, but still. They don't add anything to the plot; their presence is just a comic device intended to render the setting of the cruise as absurd as possible. That's one point.

The other is that Soo-Lin's partner in crime and even more insufferable gossip pal, Audrey (who is the semi-accidental antagonist of the whole book) gets to have a redemption arc while Soo-Lin remains just...there. Still kind of a shitty-but-you-feel-bad-for-thinking-so character, no redemption, just literally handwaved away by Bernadette.

Despite this small misgiving, overall I had a really good time with Var blev du av Bernadette. It was a compelling read, and it was just the thing for me to kickstart my Swedish reading in 2018.

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