Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.
To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.
Full out confession: this will be a combined review and reflection, as both Michele and I had life get in the way of everything for this month. We were fortunate to meet to discuss both our August and September reads in a joint book club meeting with Christa and Rhiannon, and spent time on both Shadow and Bone & Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Sadly, wee Lady Sybil was unable to make it due her strenuous nap schedule.
First … the Review
Full confession to my bookstore patrons … I’ve picked up WYGB many times, and put it down equally as many times in the past year or so. I’ve had my fill of the epistolary novel as of late, and while there have been some absolute gems, there have been others that have left me cold. Part of it may be my own growing burnout with social media in all its forms, as that translates into “No, thank you, I do not want to read tweets from my own stream, let alone in a fictional form”. However, I agreed to the addition of Where’d You Go, Bernadette to the list because I knew that I would like it if I could just get into it.
I wasn’t too far off base. I did like the story, although the convention of letters and emails and such did wear thin by the end. What saved it for me was the use of multiple narrators, and multiple perspectives. Simple has a gift with her ability to draw big picture characters – almost caricatures – and then refine them into something more nuanced and different using only texts, emails and the like. Bernadette remained an enigma throughout much of the book (as she should) and it was absolutely fascinating to me how she developed as a character through the observations of those around her, as much as by her own words.
There’s also some pretty wicked satire in this book, and as a former employee of a Toronto private school that shall remain nameless, I howled with laughter at the descriptions of the hyper-attentive and socially conscious parents, the fundraisers, and the general cattiness of the parents towards each other. In this case, life was art. I have to wonder how many readers were able to find themselves in some of the descriptions, or at least their class parents and school leaders. You can tell that Maria Semple used to write for TV, including Arrested Development, because the humour is, at times, so sharp that you can cut yourself on the honesty.
I found that the story lagged a bit, but that the ending was a perfect set up and that it tied together all the tiny clues that had been interspersed throughout the entire novel. I loved that it was clear that everyone had changed over the course of the novel, because that’s how real life works – none of us stay stagnant, and we all evolve in some form over time.
Am I glad that I read it? Yes, I am. It was a good read, and while I did get tired of the format, I found the story engaging and the characters to be fun and interesting. The one you thought you’d hate became the one you sympathized, and I have so much love for Bee, Bernadette’s daughter that I can’t begin to tell you how much. Precocious? Yes. Absolutely relatable and ultimately my favourite narrator? Part of that comes from the relationship between Bee and her mother, as Bernadette, no matter what, always tries to be honest and open with her daughter, and let’s Bee know that she will be supported no matter what.
“I can pinpoint that as the single happiest moment of my life, because I realized then that Mom would always have my back. It made me feel giant. I raced back down the concrete ramp, faster than I ever had before, so fast I should have fallen, but I didn’t fall, because Mom was in the world.”
I’ll be recommending this more, and will be sure to follow whatever else Semple will be publishing.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is published in Canada by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group. ISBN: 9780316333603, 352 pages.
Now … the Discussion!
It was interesting to hear people’s thoughts when I mentioned that I was reading this book for our Brunch Book Club discussion. Many people had read it, and the views seemed to be uniformly split down the middle for love or hate – not much in the middle. Our discussion was firmly on the “we liked it” side of things, although I would say that Michele liked it a touch more than I.
We both really enjoyed the character of Bee, Bernadette’s daughter, and thought that she was one of the best characters in the story. As well, the depiction of the private school parents was pretty much a highlight for all. The surreal nature of the Microsoft corporate culture was also discussed, and we wondered just how far off base (if at all) the depiction might have been. After recent stories about what life is like at Apple and Google, it’s not hard to believe that the micro-climates and pods are more realistic than we surmise, and that people really can give up their lives for the company.
We talked a bit about the narration via letters format, and while it didn’t really work for me, others weren’t so conflicted. Someone (I think it might have been Christa?) pointed out that too often that format results in too much “tell” in the story, and not enough natural action in the storyline, and I think that’s probably why I have a problem with it. The constant recount doesn’t leave a lot of room for actual storytelling, and that’s a problem for me.
Definitely a strong read, and those at our table who hadn’t read it moved it up the list to be read soon.
Will you join us for our October read of “The Chocolate Money” by Ashley Prentice? Be sure to join our GoodReads group to let us know!