Saturday, September 21, 2019

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

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is a modern-day epistolary novel, constructed by narrator Bee Branch, a wise, sweet 15-year-old girl, who pieces together the story of her mother’s disappearance using emails, faxes, doctor’s notes, receipts, and even a transcript of a TED talk.

Bee’s mother, Bernadette Fox, is/was a brilliant architect, winner of a MacArthur genius grant, known in architectural circles for two quirky “locally sourced” houses, but best known for disappearing. Following the demolition of her second house, she abandoned her career, escaped to suburban Seattle with her Microsoft-bound husband, and focused on raising her daughter. Averse to people in general and Seattle-ites in particular, she essentially drops out of sight.

Her reclusiveness incites the ire of the other parents at Bee’s exclusive (but second-tier) private school. Bernadette would rather avoid conflict but stirs it up effortlessly–leading to the amusing if farcical train of events that make up the narrative.

The story takes off when Bee earns straight A’s and reminds her parents that her promised reward is a trip to Antarctica. Bernadette hates the thought of traveling, especially by boat, but cannot disappoint Bee. She tries to pull herself together for the trip, relying on an outsourced email personal assistant. Things spiral out of control. Drastically. Then Bernadette disappears again.

Bee is unwilling to accept that her mother would abandon her. And she adamantly refuses to believe her mother is dead. So she reconstructs the last few weeks of her mother’s life, then delves into her mother’s past.

The result is a wacky picture of a creative genius, stifled by circumstance, whose love for her family helps her find a way forward.

The book is fast-paced and entertaining.  It suffers bit by comparison with Daisy Jones and the Six, which I had just finished reading, which also had a pieced together narrative but was more realistic and grittier. Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a fun book and I imagine it makes for a delightful movie, but it isn’t something that will stick with me.

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