Sunday, October 14, 2012

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Bee Branch is an eighth-grader, a successful student who is on track to go to boarding school (Choate) for high school.  Bernadette Fox, her mother, was an architect who won a MacArthur genius grant after designing just two buildings in LA some 20 years ago; she has not worked for years, hates Seattle, has a mild case of agoraphobia, and goes on rants about a variety of irritants. Elgin Branch, Bee's laid-back father, is a Microsoft team leader who gave the fourth-most-watched TED talk of all time. The family lives in a crumbling house--actually an abandoned school for wayward girls--that is symbolic of the mess their family is in.

Bee decides to take her parents up on a "you can have anything you want for graduation if you have a perfect record in elementary school" promise and ask for a family trip to Antarctica. Bernadette and Elgin agree and schedule the trip--but Bernadette is actually in something of a panic at the thought of enforced socializing with others on the boat and the nausea-inducing Drake Passage. She hires a personal assistant in India to handle all of her errands, including massive ordering of supplies for the trip. Meanwhile, ongoing tiffs with her neighbor lead to a series of events that make Bernadette look like she is totally losing it. When Elgin schedules an intervention, Bernadette disappears.

The book is structured as Bee's attempt to find out what happened to her mother (and she does unravel the mystery in an ending I found rather contrived). It includes Bee's narration, as well as many documents--emails, newspaper articles, memos, Christmas letters, press releases, and more. I liked the structure and the humorous commentary on the way we live our lives in the 21st century was on point. The farcical aspects of the book grew wearying, however (I don't last long with movies that are farces either)--some good editing might have produced a tighter, funnier book. Still, the book was a fun read.

Favorite passage:
The sky in Seattle is so low, it felt like God had lowered a silk parachute over us. Every feeling I ever knew was up in that sky. Twinkling joyous sunlight; airy, giggling cloud wisps; blinding columns of sun. Orbs of gold, pink, flesh, utterly cheesy in their luminosity. Gigantic puffy clouds, welcoming, forgiving, repeating infinitely across the horizon as if between mirrors; and slices of rain, pounding wet misery in the distance now, but soon on us, and in another part of the sky, a black stain, rainless.

Of note:
Maria Semple is friendly with Carol Cassella, the author of this year's One Book, One Broomfield choice. She uses Cassella's doctor persona in the novel and in the acknowledgments thanks Cassella's daughters for providing models for the character of Bee.

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