All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Where’d You Go Bernadette – Maria Semple

on July 14, 2013

Where'd You Go BernadetteWhere’d You Go Bernadette
Maria Semple
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
2012, 321p
Read from my local library

Bernadette Fox is a lot of things – depending on who you ask. The fellow mothers at her daugther’s exclusive school don’t have much time for her. She’s never volunteered, she’s never become apart of the community. In fact, Bernadette seems to actively shun the community, behaves like it is an anathema to her. She doesn’t fit in to Seattle society – she didn’t buy the right house, she doesn’t wear the right clothes, she doesn’t act in the right way. Her husband Elgie might be some highly paid bigwig at Microsoft, but Bernadette is definitely an outcast.

To her daughter Bee, Bernadette is her best friend. Elgie works long hours at MS and for a long time it’s been mostly Bernadette and Bee. Born with a heart defect, not expected to live and subjected to a myriad of heart operations before she was 5, Bee is well behind her classmates in stature but she makes up for it in academic ability. She makes a bargain with Bernadette – if she gets perfect grades in middle school, she gets to claim a reward of her choosing. And Bee’s choice is to go to Antarctica, the three of them.

This throws Bernadette into a state of panic. The only time she leaves the house is to drop off and pick up Bee from school and during that she doesn’t have to leave the car. Bernadette doesn’t even call to make dinner reservations – she leaves all of that to her virtual assistant Manjula from India, who takes care of every minute aspect of Bernadette’s life with ease. Bernadette confides in Manjula, writing her long emails, confessing her fears and neurosis, the things she doesn’t seem able to say in person to the people in her life. As the pressure of the impending trip bears down on her and her life implodes, Bernadette simply vanishes.

Her daughter Bee seems to the only one that wants to get to the bottom of her disappearance. She uses Bernadette’s letters to Manjula, an FBI investigation, school circulars, all the letters and official correspondence she can get her hands on that pertains to her mother in order the one question that drives her – where’d you go Bernadette?

I’ve heard a lot about this book, since it made the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. It then made the shortlist and I saw a few more reviews, heard a bit more buzz. I requested it from my local library and when I settled down to read it, I was excited. I knew it was told mostly through letters, emails and other documents and I love those sort of novels. If they’re done well, they’re one of my favourite forms of narrative and there is absolutely no doubt that this book is done well.

Bernadette Fox is a former architect with a promising career and a huge buzz on her talent and vision until a Horrible Thing happened to her. After that she dropped out of the rat race of LA and moved to Seattle with her husband, who had scored a job at Microsoft (the book pokes great gentle fun at the MS “culture” and the status symbols in the town depending on where in the company people work etc). Bernadette doesn’t fit in with Seattle – she has no interest in their houses, instead choosing to buy a run down former girls home. She had plans to fix it up but they fell by the wayside and now the sprawling building leaks and is being overrun by blackberries. Her social agoraphobia keeps her mostly confined to the house and she relies on her virtual assistant Manjula to complete tasks that she shows little inclination of doing herself, despite her husband’s wish that she cease paying someone in India to carry out these things. Bernadette’s life revolves around her daughter Bee, who took a long time to arrive, with Bernadette suffering numerous miscarriages before the pregnancy that produced Bee, and then nearly losing her countless times. Although Bernadette loves Bee the thought of going on a holiday cruise to Alaska and being around other people with no means of escape causes her to panic. She makes all the right noises about going but privately she’s trying frantically to think of ways to get out of it, including coming up with the idea of having her wisdom teeth unnecessarily extracted the day before.

This book is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny in some places but more darkly humerous in others. Bernadette was deeply scarred by something professional in her past that she allowed to fester and become out of control inside her, leading her husband and others to believe that she was deeply mentally ill. An extremely creative person, an artist, she had quelled that side of her personality and after years, it began to have affects on the way she was able to function. Elgie himself is also partly responsible, he works such long hours that he doesn’t seem to see his wife anymore or what has happened to her/is happening to her. When he does realise though he makes some sort of attempt to help her although it’s not exactly the right one. He flounders without her, it is Bee that steadies everything, that keeps searching for her mother when everyone else believed that she was gone forever. Bee brings Elgie around as well, the two of them working together to put their family back together. All of the characters have things they need to work through, particularly together. There’s a huge lack of communication between many key characters – Bernadette keeps her grief from Elgie, her reliance on her virtual assistant and her feelings about Bee possibly going off to boarding school locked up inside. The idea by Bee to write a novel on her mother’s disappearance using all of the correspondence she can find, helps these issues come pouring out and a better understanding is attained by everyone.

Where’d You Go Bernadette is brilliantly written, sharply witty and very astute. The ending was a bit far-fetched but I was willing to go with it for the sake of a damn good story, which is what this is.


Book #179 of 2013


2 responses to “Where’d You Go Bernadette – Maria Semple

  1. Hear great things about this book. *adds to TBR stack….*

  2. It’s been some time since I’ve read this one, but I know I really enjoyed it. It’s definitely a unique way of story-telling and the fact that it’s so far-fetched makes it even more special!

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