Disappear–Like the Eponymous Heroine–Into the Novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”

nernBernadette, a reclusive yet insightful architect, has vanished, seemingly into thin air. Her husband, Elgin, seems more concerned with developing his revolutionary new Microsoft program than finding her. Thus, it falls on her daughter Bee’s shoulders to discover where Bernadette disappeared. Told through e-mail and snail mail correspondence between characters, the mysterious circumstances around Bernadette’s disappearance became hilariously apparent.

Author Maria Semple is familiar with comedic dysfunctional families through her involvement with Arrested Development and Mad About You, and she applies this knowledge perfectly. The fully-realized characters that inhabit this novel are both absurd and relatable. And the whimsicality of the story and writing make this both a swift and entertaining read. Not since I read Sophie Kinsella’s I’ve Got Your Number have I been so amused by a novel.

Humorous novels are hard to pull off. Reading does not lend itself to LOL levels of comedy. But Semple’s perfectly crafted story combines so many random elements that you can’t help but laugh when you see how all the pieces fit together. Bernadette is definitely one novel that you’ll want to devour some lazy weekend.

Ambiguous Love Reigns in “The Heiress”

The 1947 play The Heiress is currently enjoying its second Broadway revival. Adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from Henry James’ Washington Square, the story feels like Jane Austen in New York City. With direction by playwright Moises Kaufman, this revival is a humorous and ambiguous examination of love and trust.

theheiressposterYoung Catherine Sloper (Jessica Chastain) is the titular heiress, expecting to receive a sizable fortune upon her father’s death. He, Dr. Austin Sloper (David Strathairn), concerns himself with finding a suitable young man for Catherine to marry. However, his anger with his daughter for causing his wife to die in childbirth has led him to put too much stress on her. She’s a timid, naive and “deeply unattractive” girl, bringing out even more disdain in Austin. So when young and attractive Morris Townsend (Dan Stevens) arrives to court his daughter, he is extremely suspicious.

As Morris woos Catherine, our distrust for his intentions grows. The audience must infer and deduce whether he truly loves Catherine or if he is a calculating young man. Stevens certainly does enough to make Morris ambiguous. The contrast between his dweeb-like American accent in Catherine’s presence and his more calculating tone when around others such as comedic relief Lavinia Penniman (a thoroughly amusing Judith Ivey), Catherine’s aunt, is enough to make one suspicious.

img-the-heiress_164707558146.jpg_article_singleimageIt’s not until the second act that everyone’s motives become increasingly clear. This is when the role of Catherine grows into something substantial. In the performance I saw, Chastain’s understudy, Mairin Lee, performed the role of Catherine. While adequately portraying naiveté, Lee was clearly aping Chastain’s style of acting, making it both easier to imagine her, Chastain, in the role instead and harder to enjoy her, Lee’s, own performance. This is definitely a role that an actress can sink her teeth into, and Chastain, I can only assume, does a wonderful job with it. (Hopefully this is her year, with both an Oscar and a Tony in her future!)

Before the last of this season’s shows begin opening, be sure to check out this play. It’s funny and engaging enough to make you forget that it runs almost 3 hours in length. And the performances strike a good balance between subtlety and camp, keeping you engaged in guessing about the characters’ motives and what kind of action they will take in those final scenes without becoming darkly serious.

Enjoy 18th Century Korean Culture in the Memoirs of a Crown Princess

redqueenMargaret Drabble’s The Red Queen blurs the lines of fact and fiction to tell the rise (and fall) of Korea’s Crown Princess. Synthesized and fictionalized from various memoirs and biographies concerning the Crown Princess, the first half of the novel is her own firsthand account of the events of the Royal Family (as told by the Crown Princess some 200 years in the future). The second half of the novel follows Dr. Babs Halliwell as she reads these memoirs and how it affects her trip to Korea for a conference.

The first half is a deeply engrossing story that is easy to get sucked into (like Halliwell does in the second half). It has a Memoirs of a Geisha feel that brings the culture of Korea to life in a fascinating way. Just as the Crown Princess becomes posthumously obsessed with royal biographies, her own royal story is just as interesting to read and share.

The second half is somewhat underwhelming compared to the first. Babs is on her way to a conference in Korea when she becomes deeply engrossed in the Crown Princess’ memoirs. The story then delves into the minutiae of her time in Korea in similar fashion to Ian McEwan’s Saturday or Solar. She gets involved with two different men and explores the historical sites that were mentioned in the memoirs.

It’s not until the final 30-odd pages that Drabble tries to tie everything together and make a point. But by then the fascination with the novel has faded greatly from the piquant first half. Her writing style is exact yet stark, easy to become engrossed in but still leaving something to be desired. Her transcultural themes, too, leave something to be desired, as the tie between the two halves of the novel feels too weak. But the memoirs in the first half are enough to make this novel a worthy read and land it a spot on The List.