Title: Where’d Ya Go Bernadette?
Author: Maria Semple
2017 Book Challenge Entry: A book of letters
Thoughts: The format of a book can do so much to enhance or detract from a story. I read a book series a few years ago that perfectly illustrates this point. The first few books were written in a typical format in a first person point of view. The last book in the series, however, while still first person, shifted between two different narrators. The change in format kind of ruined the book for me. At that point, I had invested some of my life into the series so I finished it, but it wasn’t very satisfying.
Writing a book using mixed formats, especially letters, can be like that. It’s a wonderful device to use to trickle information through the book and not just vomit exposition, and it’s a great way to shift perspectives among characters, but it’s tricky. It can make or break a book.
In the case of Where’d You Go Bernadette, it makes it.
The story, which is told using a combination of emails, letters, and some traditional first person narrative, dives into the disappearance of Bernadette Fox. The brilliant and famously reclusive former architect has many faces. She is opinionated and fiercely independent. She is her daughter, Bee’s, best friend. To the other mom’s of the private school where Bee attends, she is an embarrassing abomination. She also suffers from high levels of anxiety and agoraphobia.
The adventure begins when Bee brings home all As on her report card and wants to take a trip to Antarctica to celebrate. However, Bernadette is so agoraphobic that she can barely leave the house to get groceries, much less take a trip to the other end of the world. Her virtual assistant in India basically runs her life. Just days before the trip, Bernadette mysteriously vanishes without a trace.
The structure of the novel is in the various correspondence Bee compiles in an effort to find out where her mother is and what could possibly have happened. It is really quite fantastic and the pay off is deliciously satisfying.
I love when a book crosses genres. I have a hard time getting behind just…literature….but a mystery/comedy/nontraditional structure that weaves in themes of mother/daughter bonding and issues of mental illness?
Deal. Me. In.
I loved these characters so much. Bernadette is deeply flawed but a total genius and as I read about some of her shenanigans, I couldn’t help but think, “You. Are. Crazy.” I was also rooting for her the entire time. I wanted her to find some kind of happiness and redemption.
Bee could read as a snot. She attends a private school and comes from an affluent family, but there is more going on with her than meets the eye. She is loyal to her mother and wants nothing more than to figure out what happened to her. She is upset by her father’s behavior prior to and following Bernadette’s absence and, coming from a family that experienced some turmoil in it’s past, I can’t blame her for behaving and feeling the way she does.
There are other characters we encounter that we really only meet via emails. There are many emails between a couple different moms gossiping about Bernadette, and then more emails between one of the mom’s and a secretary in Mr. Fox’s office but for the most part, the story centers on Bernadette, Bee and Bee’s father, Elgie.
I’m a huge fan of this book. It’s funny, smart and has a surprising amount of heart. It keeps you guessing until the end and I have to say, I didn’t exactly see the ending coming. As a new mom, it made me think about how I want to treat my daughter and I also found myself reflecting on my relationship with my mom. No relationship is perfect and sometimes you just have to disappear to figure out what makes the relationship valuable and reevaluate how much effort you really want to invest. I think that kind of perspective is necessary and this book reminded me that when you look at it from many points of view, reflection can be both hilarious and emotionally satisfying.