Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Published: 2012, Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Adult Fiction
Source: Borrowed from a friend
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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.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette is most definitely a book that I would not have independently sought out. Not because it's adult fiction, but because of the subject matter. It's about an eccentric housewife who seems to get caught in a downward spiral, and her relationships with her family and others. As it turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, this was not the right book for me. But I am glad that I had the opportunity to read something so outside my range of familiarity, and for the chance to have an awesome discussion with my coworkers about the book.
Although Bernadette Fox has lived in Seattle for over a decade with her husband Elgie and daughter Balakrisha (Bee), she's never been able to fully adjust to their life in the suburbs. She was once a young female architect with many accolades already to her name, but she hasn't really constructed anything new since her family's move to Seattle, nor has she made any efforts to become involved in the work and school lives of her husband and daughter. Over the years, Bernadette has become more and more reclusive. When Bee's first term grades merit her any reward she wants, she asks that her family spends their Christmas vacation on a cruise to Antarctica. Her parents agree -- anything for their beloved only child -- but Bernadette has had social and psychological problems for years, and they only seem to be getting worse as the family prepares for the trip. And then, right before embarking on the trip, Bernadette simply disappears.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a difficult book to define. For the first three-quarters of the book, Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a dark and witty satire of "normal" life and a woman who just doesn't seem to fit in with everyone else. Bernadette is almost a parody of a character, and her main antagonists from Bee's school certainly seem to be complete parodies. By the last section of the book, however, the story becomes much more serious in nature, focusing on family and Bee's personal growth. As I explained above, the two parts of the story certainly connect, but they are not as seamlessly connected as they could have been.
The most unique aspect of Where'd You Go, Bernadette is definitely Semple's use of narrative structure. At its surface, the story is told through two distinct time periods. The first part, which covers roughly three-quarters of the book, is a series of emails, essays, faxes, reports, and other types of communication. These different forms of communication combine to tell the story of Bernadette's agreement to her family's trip and then eventual disappearance, with older reports and other documents to help explain the person that Bernadette once was, in comparison to the person she's since become. This part actually contains a frame narrative of Bee, while at school, compiling together all these documents to try to make sense of what happened to her mother. The last quarter of the book takes place from Bee's perspective in present day, as she and her father actively search for Bernadette. Semple clearly plays around with lots of narrative techniques in this novel, although I found some to be more successful than others, as I found some of the characters more dimensional and engaging than others.
With such a large cast of characters taking turns as narrators through the various narrative forms throughout the novel, at times it is difficult for readers to tell what is most important in this book. Indeed, in retrospect not all of the narrators seemed necessary to convey this story. But everything ultimately comes back to Bee and her relationship with Bernadette. Bee is the only child of Bernadette and Elgie, who have begun to grow apart since they lived in Los Angeles, where he was a hotshot computer programmer and she was an architect with so much promise. The majority of Bernadette and Elgie's interactions are due to Bee. She may not be enough to make their marriage as it once was, but Bee knows that she's her mother's sole supporter in the world. Although Bernadette has some issues, she's Bee's closest friend, and Bee is hers. Through Bee and Bernadette, readers are privy to an unconventional yet heartwarming story of a mother and daughter's relationship.
Perhaps the biggest flaw with Where'd You Go, Bernadette is that so many aspects tie up so neatly. There are odds and ends that aren't quite resolved, of course, but the main storyline ties up perhaps a little too neatly. But then again, the satire that is so prevalent for the majority of the book is not due to Bee; it's from the letters and notes that Bee compiles. Even in her narration from the first three-quarters of the novel, Bee's parts are always more serious, more heartfelt. Once Bee has put together all the information she needs to go and find her mother, the additional narrators are no longer necessary. The story becomes what it always was under the surface: about a young girl in search of her mother. Still, it is definitely an abrupt and off-putting transition.
The setting itself plays a huge role in the story, which is refreshing to see, especially in a story that takes place in modern times. Bernadette's sink into depression seems to be easily linked to her and Elgie's move from Los Angeles to Seattle, a city with more rain than sun. Antarctica is no longer quite an unexplored frontier, but it's unconventional and distant enough that it seems to be exactly the setting that Bee, Bernadette, and Elgie need to fix their lives and their relationship as a family.
The novel struggles with transitions, as well as some character development. Some of the messages it conveys suffer from being incredibly overt, while others are almost entirely inferred. Still, Where'd You Go, Bernadette proved to be a fast and entertaining story, one that I do not regret reading.