Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Weidenfeld & Nicolson – June, 2012)
Fifteen-year-old Bee Branch has achieved perfect grades in her report at Galer Street School and as a reward her parents have promised her anything she wants. She wants a family cruise to Antarctica for Christmas—this could prove a problem for her agoraphobic, seasick mother Bernadette though. Bernadette was previously a well-known architect, living in Los Angeles and working on environmentally-sustainable projects before it was fashionable to do so, but then she faced a devastating setback and the family moved to Seattle. Bernadette’s husband, Elgie Branch, is a rising star at Microsoft but Bernadette has become a recluse. Bee, an only child, and Bernadette have a close relationship but she is feared and resented by the other mothers at Bee’s school. An altercation at the school gates sets in motion a chain of events that lead to Bernadette’s mysterious disappearance just before the family are due to leave for the Antarctic.
The story is told through correspondence; emails between the ‘gnats’—Bernadette’s arch-enemies Audrey Griffin and Soo-Lin Lee-Segal, between Bernadette and her ‘virtual assistant’ Manjula Kapoor in India, as well as various other notes, letters and interviews, and the narrative is filled in with Bee’s own recollections. This reconstruction is Bee’s effort to find out where her mother might have disappeared to:
Of course it’s complicated. Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try. It doesn’t mean I can’t try.
In the process we learn the origins of Bernadette’s anti-social behaviour and misanthropy and the truth of the events that led up to her disappearance.
The author, Maria Semple, has also written for various television shows including Arrested Development and the same sense of humour is apparent—a slightly surreal, faux-reality-TV style:
It was one of those rare mornings when Dad was around. He’d gotten up early to go cycling, and he was sweaty, standing at the counter in his goony fluorescent racing pants, drinking green juice of his own making. His shirt was off, and he had a black heart-rate monitor strapped across his chest, plus some shoulder brace he invented, which is supposedly good for his back because it pulls his shoulders into alignment when he’s at the computer.
‘Good morning to you too,’ he said disapprovingly.
I must have made some kind of face. But I’m sorry, it’s weird to come down and see your Dad wearing a bra, even if it is for his posture.
This is a very funny book and made me laugh out loud frequently, despite the looming spectre of Bernadette’s absence. It’s also a clever satire; particularly on life in Seattle. But as sharp as it is, it is not cold; the story is relayed with a lot of warmth and affection—in particular the relationship between Bee and her mother. As much as the characters are in some ways larger-than-life caricatures, the multiple perspectives add a lovely three-dimensional quality to the missing and perpetually misunderstood Bernadette. It is a very satisfying and enjoyable read.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette has been shortlisted for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction. The winner will be announced on the 5th of June.