Monday, August 11, 2014

REVIEW: Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple


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.

Hardcover, 330 pages
Published August 14th 2012 by Little, Brown and Company
ISBN 0316204277 (ISBN13: 9780316204279)

About the Author

Maria Semple's first novel, This One is Mine, was set in Los Angeles, where she also wrote for television shows including Arrested Development, Mad About You, and Ellen. She escaped from Los Angeles and lives with her family in Seattle, where her second novel takes place.

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My Thoughts

Bernadette was once a brilliant architect, but some mysterious event caused her to buy an old rundown private school in Seattle and move there with her husband and daughter. With grand plans of restoring the old place into a beautiful home for her family, she has instead become mired in bitterness and weighted with regret and found herself living in a broken and crumbling building. However she is proud of her husband Elgie, although he may not always be clear on just how much he means to his wife, and Bernadette absolutely adores her daughter Bee, who is a truly bright child and charms everyone who knows her. Bernadette just seems to have lost her way a bit.

Elgie is a trailblazer working at Microsoft, but may be best known for a brilliant TED talk that he did. He's reached a point in his life when he begins to doubt his wife and her competency, thinking perhaps she's gone over the edge. Then there is Soo-Lin, his assistant at work, who has begun to express an interest in him and made him feel special, and made him question his wife and his life with her.

At the request of Bee, the family plans a trip to Antarctica, but just as things come to a boil-- just as Bernadette finds herself betrayed by her husband and as it seems that all the world has turned against her-- Bernadette disappears without a trace.

This book is an organized collection of letters, emails and recitations of conversations. It isn't clear until the end just where all of this documentation originated, but it was a very clever way to develop the story. It allows you to build one perspective, and then read an email from someone else, and later get yet a different perspective.

My final word: This was a book club selection, and I did enjoy it. It wasn't a real thrilling or gripping story, but it was clever and fresh and original. It is easy to read, has a cast of colorful characters, and I enjoyed the snippets that came from letters, newspaper articles, emails, etc. The dynamics between Bernadette and the other mothers from school, as well as the emails from “Emily” (the woman in charge of organizing the school functions that the parents are involved in), all made me very happy to not have kids! And like Bee, I was not a fan of Soo-Lin:
“Soo-Lin,” I started to say, but even uttering her name made it difficult to keep talking. “She’s nice. But she’s like poop in the stew.”

“Poop in the stew?” he said.

“Let’s say you make some stew,” I explained, “and it’s really yummy and you want to eat it, right?”

“OK,” Dad said.

“And then someone stirs a little bit of poop in it. Even if it’s just a teeny-tiny amount, and even if you mix it in really well, would you want to eat it?”

“No,” Dad said.

“So that’s what Soo-Lin is. Poop in the stew.”
This is definitely a worthwhile read.

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