“There’s a saying,” Dad said. “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. Do you know what that means?”
I was sort of intrigued by this book, purely by the title. The synopsis sounds crazy (with the possibility of being crazy awesome) and Jonathan Franzen is a fan, so, you know… Then it popped up on a list over on Goodreads of “Epistolary Novels You Must Read”. Well, I have a fascination with epistolary novels so I was sold.
Well, whoever made that list is playing very fast and loose with the term “epistolary”. If I had to, I’d say it’s closer to being a VERY simplified structured version of House of Leaves. I know how that sounds, since I know that book is batshit bonkers, but at the heart of it, it’s someone reconstructing the mystery surrounding the house from notes, journals, all kinds of recovered material. Semple’s novel is essentially Bernadette’s daughter trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance by collating every last bit of information she can find. Every email, every handwritten note, every saved IM conversation. It’s all here, strung together with narrative from Bee as she continues the search for her mother.
Bernadette Fox is a certifiable crazy person. Her career as an architect derailed by an Unspeakably Awful Event, she has fled LA and moved to Seattle with her Microsoft legend husband and sickly daughter (born with a now corrected heart defect and not as sick as her mother likes to think she is). Retreating ever further from the world, Bernadette employs a cyber assistant from India, tangles with other parents from Bee’s school, and confronts her past, before pulling a vanishing act nobody can quite fathom.
The real coup of Semple’s work here is how expertly she captures all the individual voices who feature in Bernadette’s story. The battle with her prissy neighbour over being involved in school fundraising activities is uproarious stuff. The other coup is how many strands Semple has, how wide her scope is and how brilliantly she makes every outlandish plot element count for something by the end. In fact, Semple spends the whole book making you think there’s going to be some horses, before sending in a shitload of zebras. It’s brilliant.