Friday, 27 September 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

***SBRs 3rd Best Read for 2013***

Publication date:  14th August 2012
Published by:  Weidenfeld & Nicolson

My synopsis:
Bernadette Fox is wife to Elgin Branch, a high-profile computer genius working at Microsoft and mother to Bee, a smart and sensitive 15 year old girl.  She is a former award-winning architect and a genius herself.  She does however have a problem with people.  They make her anxious and she tries to avoid them at all costs. She even resorts to wearing a scarf and sunglasses (which seems like a way to make a person more conspicuous, especially in a city such as Seattle).   Her allusive behaviour alienates her from the other mothers at her daughter’s school, and she relies on a virtual personal assistant, based in India, to carry out any jobs that require interaction with others.

Bernadette goes missing two days before Christmas and her daughter Bee is determined to discover where she has gone.  Elgin is no help and so Bee does some investigative work – accessing and reading email correspondence and notes belonging to her mother in an attempt to piece together the mystery.

It would seem the trouble started when Bee brought her school report home and showed her parents that she achieved top grades in all subjects (That's what happens when 2 geniuses procreate.).  She reminded them that they promised she could have what she wanted if she achieved this.  She announces that she wants a family trip to Antarctica.  To her surprise her parents both agree.  Travelling to Antarctica would mean interacting directly with people and  Bernadette is not sure how she will be able to do this but she delegates the job of arranging the trip to her virtual PA.

My review:
The story-telling of this book is not like anything I have come across before.  Much of it is told through the correspondence that Bernadette has with those close to her (revealed when read by Bee).  Each written communication is followed up with a story from Bee about the events that occurred on the particular day of the correspondence, thus filling in the gaps.  There is also a section that looks back into Bernadette’s past (before she and Elgin moved to Seattle).  Collectively this gives the reader insight into Bernadette’s character as well as clarification of the events leading to her disappearance.  It turns out she is an extraordinary woman. 
The uniqueness of this book had me engrossed from the start and it became more and more interesting as it unravelled.  I could not put it down and stayed up all night to finish it.  At first I was not particularly sympathetic towards this family of geniuses living a life of privilege.  I was unimpressed with Bernadette’s use of a PA from India to whom she pays a pittance.  But as the story unfolds I came to realise that the virtual PA was a crutch for Bernadette to lean on and (besides her daughter) the closest thing to a confidante.  I warmed to her as I read about the way she was treated by the other mothers at Bee’s school, and also how torn she was between not disappointing her daughter and facing her fear (which increases as the trip to Antarctica approaches).

I can imagine that the portrayal of the mothers at Bee’s school, and their dislike of Bernadette for her refusal to interact with them, to be a perceptive one.  It was clear that their objection was not so much due to her unwillingness to participate, but because not doing so meant her personal life was a door that remained closed to them.  (By doing so she robbed them of a continuous source of juicy gossip.)  They became obsessed in their need to criticise and vilify her.  [Incidentally, I had criticised JK Rowling in her novel The Casual Vacancy for her lack of subtlety in her portrayal of the small-minded gossips of Pagford.  This novel shows how it should be done. For one thing, the characters are flawed but unlike those in The Casual Vacancy they have redeeming qualities]

Bernadette’s anxiety about dealing with people, if extreme, is not entirely irrational.  There are examples of how her interactions with others prove disastrous and things spiral out of control to the point where her mental health is called into question. The root of her problem is outlined in one of the letters she received from a former colleague and old friend. She is a creative type whose creativity has been stifled over many years.  The title Where'd you go... isn't just in the literal sense of Bernadette disappearing, it also poses the question what happened to the Bernadette she used to be before she moved to Seattle.

Clearly this is fiction but even so I must say I was surprised by the mention of real life brands in this book (especially surrounding Microsoft).  Not everything implied about brands, products and real people portrays them in a particularly positive or flattering light. 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a witty, perceptive and clever portrayal of an absurd side of 21st century living.  I enjoyed it so much it is one of my favourites (if not my favourite) for 2013.  

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