Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review - Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by: Maria Semple

Title: Where'd You Do, Bernadette?
Author: Maria Semple
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Pages: 324
Format: Hardcover
Source: Personal purchase


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.

My thoughts:

I like people who are kinda crazy. And I think it's mostly because I grew up among them. That is why I'm not at all surprised by how much I loved Bernadette-- I saw a lot of my mother and aunt in her.

There's a scene in the book where Bernadette's daughter Bee and her friend Kennedy are all in the car. Bernadette's driving. The girls are complaining about how bored they are being stuck in traffic, and Bernadette goes:

“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.”

This, especially, sounds exactly like my mom and aunt.

I was curious about this book especially because it was up for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013. Apart from that, I must admit I hadn't even heard of the author before. Actually, I later realized, I did have a sense of who she was, I just hadn't noticed it when I started reading the book. Maria Semple is among the writers of the famous TV show Arrested Development. When I found out about this after I was done with the book, I thought, "It totally shows in her writing!" And it really does. Semple lost the prize to one of my favorite authors A.M. Homes this year, but Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is a book everyone will remember.

Bernadette Fox is Elgie (Elgin) Branch's wife, and the mother of the 15-year-old Bee Branch. She's a woman who moves from Los Angeles to Seattle, who hates Seattle and (for some reason) Canadians, hates the other parents from her daughter's school, hates the drivers from Seattle among many other things. In the name of not having to interact with other people, she doesn't even get out of her house; instead, she gets everything done through her assistant, Manjula, who lives in India and whom Bernadette communicates with through endless e-mails. Elgie Branch is considered a guru at Microsoft, whose TEDtalk caused a lot of hype. Add this to a Bernadette's character, and she instantly becomes a snobbish, nose-in-the-air kind of woman in the eyes of the other moms from Bee's school. 

Many different events piling up leads to Bernadette's disappearance. Even though there is one narrator, we get to see different parts of the story through the eyes of different characters because Semple includes e-mails, faxes, FBI reports, etc. in her writing. Especially while reading the e-mails between Soo-Lin and Audrey, who are among the women Bernadette hates and calls "gnats," I found myself thinking whether anyone writer such long, detailed e-mails anymore. Then, I thought, I do it myself when there's a gossip or personal-trouble-shooting e-mail chain among my friends.

I really liked that fact that Semple based Bernadette on herself. The author confessed that Bernadette is an overdone version of herself, and that in itself makes everything much funnier and ridiculous.
I must admit, I'm also impressed with the different versions of the book cover. The illustration of Bernadette on the cover is the art of a designer named Keith Hayes. When I explored his work, I realized he's also the designer of the cover of John Fowles's The Collector.