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Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Sunday, August 5, 2012

My sister and I saw this reviewed in a magazine (I forget which one as we seem to be drowning in glossies these days and thought this looked like an interesting book. So, I was pleased to come across it tucked away in Foyles, Westfield Stratford.

Bernadette Fox is a doting mother, a good wife who does not cook, and a MacArthur winning architect. Oh yes, and a little unhinged. Or is she?

Pieced together through the use of emails, faxes, letters and narration by Balakrishna ‘Bee’ Fox, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? charts the eventual breakdown of a woman living on the brink. Bernadette’s unravelling is triggered by the preparation for a trip to Antarctica, and she caves under the pressure of suburban life, disappearing in what can only be seen as an attempt to rediscover herself and her passion. It is a hectic read with virtual assistants, TED talks and the FBI thrown in amongst discourse on whether or not our addiction to technology is stifling our ability to connect with one another in real life.

I very much liked Maria Semple’s lively style. I definitely connected with the erratic and eccentric prose and loved Bernadette’s blistering rants. Although it was the sweet but precious Bee’s story, the supporting characters were brilliant and complex what with: Audrey the ‘gnat’; Soo-Lin the ‘victim’; and Elgin the ‘great’. Also, the settings were important: Seattle and it’s tech mecca status contrasted with the ‘Seattle Freeze’; Choate and the Eastern ideals of money, status and education, tied to Bernadette and Elgin one of whom is still trying to break free from these confines; and LA and the freedom and madness new money can buy. Finally, there was Antarctica and the symbolic Drake Passage and the Emperor Penguin. I am sure most people these days know about the daddy penguin keeping the baby penguin safe until the mummy penguin returns.

Finally, and most importantly, the novel explores the life of The Artist and the need to constantly create. Elgin vs. Bernadette. Microsoft and the corporate rigidity masked by candy machines and enthusiastic staff vs. the chaos and passion of those who truly walk to the beat of their own drum. Also, the uniquely modern question of how to balance being a mother and wife with the need to pursue one’s goals.

Ultimately, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is about a woman trying to get back on track but in the process disrupts the lives of her family and those around her, forcing each of them to face who they truly are. It took a while to get through this novel (although it is not terribly long) but I was wonderfully entertained and definitely impressed. 
★ ★ ★ ★

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