It seems as if I’ve been circling around Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette for years. I know I’ve suggested it to the book group a couple of times, though it’s never become one of our selections. It qualified on last year’s reading challenge as a Book Set in the Arctic or Antarctic (though most of the action of the book takes place in Seattle, the parts set in Antarctica are a key part of the book, and as you know, I am pretty open minded about what qualifies in any given category), and this year it will qualify for the category “Read a Collection of Letters or an Epistolary Novel” (and while there is some actual narration interspersed with the various emails and other documents of the book, this one definitely qualifies as an epistolary novel). If at some point I choose a category like “Read a book about architecture or architects,” it would qualify there, too. It was, finally, about time I read the book, and, having done so, I’m a little annoyed at myself for having waited so long.
Don’t let the fact of its being an epistolary novel scare you. While much of the story is told through emails and memos and magazine articles, it is perfectly easy to follow, and in fact, the different tones and perspectives of the writers of those emails make for a great deal of the humor of the book. You have no problem figuring out who’s talking even without looking at the headings of the emails, and of course our narrator’s first person additions and interpolations help set the contexts too.
The thing I loved most about this book were the characters, and what juicy, fun characters they were! Bernadette is a middle aged woman with a teenage daughter, a husband who’s a genius working at Microsoft, and serious problems dealing with the world. She doesn’t fit in with the other mothers at her daughter’s school: she doesn’t volunteer, she doesn’t gossip, and she basically considers those other mothers as “gnats”, small annoying things that aren’t worth the effort to swat. Naturally, those other mothers have issues with her, especially Rachel Griffin (one of the other main characters of the book), and these issues reach tragi-comic proportions as the plot winds on (including a mudslide that nearly destroys Rachel’s house, for which both Rachel and Bernadette share the blame). Bernadette doesn’t get along well with most people, and spends most of her time in the family’s home, which is a horror movie dream, a former school/home for unwed mothers which leaks everywhere and is being infiltrated by blackberry vines even under the floors. What makes Bernadette’s willingness to hide away in that particular house all the more curious is that, before she became something of a hermit and a professional character, Bernadette was a brilliant architect, awarded a Macarthur Genius Grant back when she was living in L.A. (a case, clearly, of the shoemaker’s kids going barefoot). She rants at other drivers and at all aspects of Seattle life (don’t get her started on Canadians), she doesn’t care what people think of her, and she’s something of a scandal in town in general. But as we get to see her through her daughter’s eyes, and through her own words, we come to realize that she’s not just a stock “nutty mother” type, but an interesting person we come to care about.
Part of the humanizing of Bernadette comes from her daughter, Bee’s, perspective on her. Bee, a very smart and accomplished young lady who’s planning to go away to boarding school in the East for high school, adores her mother, and sees nothing wrong with Bernadette’s behavior. She stands up to the other mothers of the school and to anyone else who tries to give Bernadette a hard time, and she’s willing to upend her whole life when Bernadette goes missing.
Which happens twice in the novel, first when Elgin, Bernadette’s husband, tries to stage an intervention to get Bernadette committed to a mental hospital (there’s a lot going on in this book, all of which makes sense in context, but all of which, when looked at from a wider perspective, is kind of bizarre), and Bernadette disappears from a locked bathroom, leaving no note or other hint of where she’s going, and second, when she disappears from a cruise ship in Antarctica. Bee refuses to believe that her mother is dead, and especially not that she committed suicide, so Bee and her father head down to Antarctica themselves, officially so Bee can get “closure,” but actually so Bee can find out what actually happened to her mother.
I am not doing this funny, fast-moving and charming book justice. It came out in 2012, so I have come late to its delights (though I am certainly going to read Maria Semple’s other books now that I’ve seen how well she writes), but the best thing about reading in general is that it’s never too late to discover something wonderful. So spend some time with Bernadette and Bee and the whole wild cast of characters orbiting around them, and settle in for some fun.