Friday, 31 May 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Bernadette Fox has gone missing. This much we know. What we don’t know is how or why - but her daughter, Bee, is determined to find out.

Told through a combination of letters, emails, notes, and reports, and tied together by Bee’s personal account of the events transcribed within them, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is immensely enjoyable, fun and funny. I swung from sympathy to outrage to sorrow to laughter and roundabout and back again during my reading. It’s extremely well written and so cleverly plotted that I failed to predict a single outcome (at least, not until it was so obvious that the characters themselves had figured it out). It’s nice to see where a story is going sometimes, but it’s also so fun and refreshing to be kept guessing right up until the end. Maria Semple twists her characters around from bad to good, and good to bad, and twists her readers and their emotions right around her little finger along with them. It is just awesomely done.

So, to Bernadette. She’s a complicated figure: a mystery to her husband, best friend to her daughter, enemy, it seems, to everyone else. And to the reader? Lonely and reclusive. She has an infernal dislike for the other mothers at Bee’s school (or ‘gnats’, as she refers to them), one of whom is unfortunately a neighbor. Right from the get-go, we can see exactly what sort of person this neighbor is: selfish, self-righteous and self-absorbed. It's no wonder Bernadette calls her and her cohorts the gnats, and the go-between letters between the gnats and Bernadette’s response to the subsequent events are hilarious. Semple sets everything up just perfectly.

Every character gets a look-in in this book, Bernadette, Bee, the gnats, her eccentric husband Elgin with his penchant for chronically misinterpreting everything (although, I guess, to give him his due, it’s fairly understandable why he gets to the conclusions he gets to), just as they all, except for Bee, have a part to play in the outcome. Each has their individual blindnesses that contributes in its own way to Bernadette’s disappearance, Bernadette included – you know as soon as she starts giving out her bank details to her 'online assistant' Manjula that tears are going to be shed. But they each make up for it in the end, except perhaps for one particularly nasty gnat who just can’t break her evil ways, try as she might.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a book that defies classification – I wouldn’t want to risk anyone missing out on it’s heart and wit by giving it any form of label. Heart is perhaps the best way of describing it, though: the heart that comes from this collection of characters, their weaknesses and their strengths. During the first part of the story, I found myself asking not, Where Did Bernadette Go? but, What Happened Bernadette? What happened to make you the person you are today? Although, thinking about it, perhaps Semple’s title is asking the same thing. Because maybe the title's question refers not just to Bernadette’s present disappearance, but also to the more metaphorical one, where she disappeared into herself after The Horrible Thing that happened of twenty-ish years ago. Can Bee and Elgin get her back?

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