Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Where'd You Go, Bernadette - Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, BernadetteWhere'd You Go Bernadette[?] is a novel about disappearing.  Everyone in this book is disappearing, and they're all absolutely crazy.  The titular Bernadette Fox, once a famous architect, has vanished from the architectural scene and is slowly being subsumed into soccer mom life (except her daughter, Bee, doesn't play soccer, but it amounts to the same thing, really).  But she's also disappearing from that, having a virtual assistant in India run all of her errands for her so she doesn't have to interact with other people, and then she up and disappears entirely, with no one knowing where she went or what happened to her.  Meanwhile, her husband disappears from their family and into his work, and the supporting characters (known almost entirely through documents they produce) are losing themselves in various ways, too.  Everyone in the book is falling to pieces in pretty much every way imaginable, and Semple does a beautiful job of showing how they're all collapsing on the inside but showing completely different faces to the world around them, making them seem far more composed and in control than they actually are.  Even teenaged Bee, who seems the most together of all of them, is slowly dissolving and un-becoming, disappearing into a completely different Bee as she starts the search for her lost mother.

This is, also, a supremely funny book.  There were multiple occasions when I found myself gasping or giggling out loud at some antic.  Who'd have thought that blackberry brambles could be so funny?  I didn't, and yet they were.  (The blackberry brambles, such an innocuous object, are still one of the cornerstones of this story; hardly any of it would have happened without--or, perhaps more accurately, with--them.)  A lot of this is due to how the book is set up.  The majority of it is a series of documents produced by the characters: emails to and about each other, newsletters sent out to the parents of Bee's school, stuff like that.  Normally I'm not a fan of document-based books, because they tend to be exhausting to read, but this one was extremely engaging.  Despite the characters not being "present" on the page, they were all easily distinguishable and knowable.  The documents trace Bernadette's difficulties coping with life in Seattle, which she tries to avoid by throwing herself into preparations for a cruise to Antarctica--which she simultaneously tries to avoid.  While Bernadette isn't actually "losing it," it looks to many people like she is, and things draw to a head and culminate in her vanishing.  After this point, there are some more documents regarding Bernadette's husband and the other people mixed up in the mess.  Then the book switches, and Bee begins narrating, telling about her search for Bernadette when everyone else has given up.

I also liked how mental health was treated in this narrative.  Bernadette has anxiety regarding some things, but she's not "crazy."  She's not even really agoraphobic, though the back of the book says she is; she does leave the house, routinely, for various things without any crippling anxiety.  She can cope with things and do them herself; she just prefers not to.  However, as she trusts more and more of her life to other people, particularly the Indian virtual assistant mentioned before, people begin to think she's mentally unwell, particularly the mothers of Bee's classmates, who frown upon Bernadette's decisions and lifestyle in general.  This was a wonderful example of how someone who's different--not bad, just different--can be completely stigmatized in an area beyond high school.  Mothers and other parents can be just as vicious as kids in this regard, and the book shows it well--as well as showing Bernadette being vicious right back.  Bernadette doesn't vanish because she's driven to the edge; she vanishes because other people think she has been, and she wants to show that they're wrong.  It's a great example of how people's preconceptions can cause utter chaos when really nothing is the way it was thought to be.

There were a few things that had me raising an eyebrow throughout this (particularly how easy it apparently is to escape from an Antarctic cruise ship, for multiple people) but in general I thought Semple did an extremely good job with how she structured the book; like all books, it requires suspension of disbelief, but once it gets going, everything fits so logically together that it's not a challenge to buy the narrative as a whole.  I pretty much read this in one sitting, and enjoyed every minute of it.

4.5 stars out of 5.

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