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.
I have been meaning to read and review best sellers from my to-read list for weeks now. I’ve narrowed my choices to five books as of the moment – Where’d You Go, Bernadette, All the Light We Cannot See, All the Bright Places, Everything I Never Told You, and Red Queen. I tried to think of some way to decide the order in which I’d read said books upon which the criterion number of pages has prevailed. I apologize in behalf of my fair attention span for this matter.
Unimportant introductions aside, it is because of the sheer enjoyment that I feel after having read this that I could describe this novel as nothing short of remarkable.
The story begins with Bee (real name: Balakrishna Branch) who presents her straight-S grades and demands her long awaited trip to *drumroll* Antartica. She directs this request to her parents, Elgie Branch and our main character, Bernadette Fox, to which unanimous agreement was made. Now, Bernadette evidently has strong animosity towards people (and Seattle) which she specifically reiterates in her numerous emails. She thinks going to Antartica is a bad idea. So what does she do about it? She coordinates with a virtual assistant she hired for 75 cents/hour to come up with plans to avoid their trip to Antartica. Sometime later, a number of events lead to Bernadette’s sudden disappearance. What exactly happened? Where did Bernadette go? Bee had to find out.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is an epistolary novel. It is written as a series of documents, a portfolio of emails, letters, and reports pertinent to Bernadette’s disappearance. While it is true that a significant number of authors have adopted unconventional writing styles, I cannot discard the fact that Maria Semple’s book has been one of my more fascinating reads. The dialogues are sharp and clever, it felt as though I was watching a show rather than reading a novel. The format takes a while to get used to but after a number of pages, it’s delightful to note that the humor fits all the right places whether it be in simple narrations, letters, remarks, or rebuttals.
And just as you’d think everything was intended to make you laugh, the mystery and the drama kicks in. This is what makes it all the more wonderful, the way in which everything slowly unfolds before you. Before you know it, you’ve finished more than 70% of the story and it’ll feel bad only because you don’t want it to end yet.
As for the characters, Bernadette is a genius architect with tremendous amounts of peculiarity, sarcasm, and wit. Despite the strong front, there is a lot of internal conflict going on in Bernadette’s mind. For a moment, I was worried that this would be Gone Girl all over again but thankfully, it wasn’t.
I love Bernadette. Her character has this strange combination of strength and calm. I was confused if I should love her or hate her. But I couldn’t hate her. She was too cool to be hated. The interactions among the characters reveal a lot about Bernadette’s reputation as well as the inner workings of her mind. Now I think Bee was able to capture the character of her mother in these words:
Here’s something about Mom: she’s bad with annoyances, but great in a crisis. If a waiter doesn’t refill her water after she’s asked three times, or she forgets her dark glasses when the sun comes out, look out! But when it comes to something truly bad happening, Mom plugs into this supreme calm.
On the contrary, I was in a repetitive crisis of loving and hating the rest of the characters. I didn’t particularly like the gnats (Soo-Lin and Audrey) but their squabbles and childish acts were truly entertaining. Soo-lin was the primary recipient of my irritation. Audrey on the other hand was just this huge ball of denial and the moment I understood this, I found her personality to be quite bearable.
Elgie Branch is another story. His gradual development surprised me. I was very indifferent towards Elgie until his great move (which of course, I’m not telling). To me, he did not stand out as much as Bee or Bernadette but the progressive changes in his emotions as well his resolve at the end of the story was clearer and more commendable than anyone else’s.
The novel also conveys messages that involve people and places (i.e. Seattle) not in a hateful manner but in a genuinely entertaining tone. If somehow you find the usual complaints about these things distressing, I assure you the ending will provide you a sense of relief.
After reading the novel, I also tried to make myself more knowledgeable about the author and reading some interviews have made me realize that I would probably marvel about her unique writing style for a long time.
Maria Semple is a force to be reckoned with and Where’d You Go Bernadette is as captivating as what the reviews tell you. It’s quirky and unique but slowly builds itself from a stable plot, and this along with its endearing list of characters provides both comical relief and a satisfying ending to a surprisingly heartwarming story.
Favorite quotes from Where’d You Go, Bernadette:
That’s right,’ she told the girls. ‘You are bored. And I’m going to let you in on a little secret about life. You think it’s boring now? Well, it only gets more boring. The sooner you learn it’s on you to make life interesting, the better off you’ll be.
My heart started racing, not the bad kind of heart racing, like I’m going to die. But the good kind of heart racing, like, Hello, can I help you with something? If not, please step aside because I’m about to kick the shit out of life.
This is why you must love life: one day you’re offering up your social security number to the Russian Mafia; two weeks later you’re using the word calve as a verb.
I’d say I never considered myself a great architect. I’m more of a creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares.
Life is a stew, and pot is poop.If someone stirred even a teeny-bit of poop in the stew, would you really want to eat it?