Friday March 1, 2013
Review by SHARIL DEWA
Here’s a fun romp of a read — just ignore the inconsistencies.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Author: Maria Semple
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 324 pages
MEET Bernadette Fox. She is a myriad of characters to various people. She is the talented yet troubled wife of Elgin Branch, a genius working in Microsoft; she is a nuisance and a troublemaker to the mothers at her daughter’s school; she is the revolutionary architect to design students and practitioners; and she is simply Mum to Bee, her 15-year-old daughter.
Having presented her titular character as a splinter of more than one personality, author Maria Semple decides that her novel needs drama. Thus, she causes Bernadette to disappear, much to the anguish of Bee and chagrin of Elgin. Semple then not only spends her debut novel exploring why Bernadette Fox disappeared but also who she is. The author attempts to paint a picture of a complex woman suffering from her own inner turmoil, and she succeeds somewhat.
It is while Bernadette is taking care of the logistics of a planned Christmas family trip that she begins to show symptoms of not being all there. Firstly, she engages an Indian woman named Manjula who is based in India to assist with day-to-day errands – in Seattle.
While the e-mail exchanges between Bernadette and Manjula shed some insight into Bernadette’s mental make-up when the word agoraphobia comes up, it is the e-mail and fax exchanges between fellow school mums Audrey Griffin and Soo-Lin Lee-Segal that paint Bernadette as a renegade mother who refuses to be the conventional (ie, permanently smiling and happy to be point of being fake) soccer mum that Audrey and Soo-Lin portray themselves to be.
Audrey, the all-American mother with the perfect family and true blue Christian beliefs, is a sharp contrast to Bernadette, who is an adamant atheist. The gossipy exchanges between Audrey and Soo-Lin also serve as the comic element of the novel.
The first run-in between Audrey and Bernadette takes place over several e-mails and faxes and ends up with a dramatic mudslide and a total meltdown for Audrey. The dramatic mudslide may seem a tad far fetched but bear with it, as it plays a vital part in the plot.
Throughout the first part of Where’d You Go, Bernadette (the novel is divided into seven parts), husband Elgin Branch remains distant and in the background, giving readers the impression that Elgin and Bernadette live separate lives.
Bernadette’s past comes into full play in the second part of the novel, where readers learn of the creative dervish that was the titular character’s career in architecture. Readers also learn of the various miscarriages Bernadette suffered before she conceived and managed to carry Bee to full term. (And we find out that Bee’s full name is Balakrishna and that she was named after an Indian deity.)
When Bernadette disappears in the fourth part of the novel, Elgin’s presence becomes more prominent. But though he loves her, Semple makes it clear that Elgin is not able to understand the private anguish that Bernadette seems to be harbouring deep inside.
In dramatic tones, Elgin confesses to Bee that certain choices he made in the lead-up to Christmas and the family might have played a part in the disappearance of Bernadette. In contrast, Soo-Lin’s ramblings to Audrey about her love for Elgin proves comical. And Bee’s reaction to her father’s brief affair with Soo-Lin in the wake of her mother’s disappearance gives readers a dose of that anguish, despair and confusion that Semple is striving to portray.
Just as Bernadette seems to be made up of a myriad personalities, the novel offers a myriad emotions, which is as near a reflection of what Semple obviously hopes is a slice of real life.
The premise for Where’d You Go, Bernadette is not a wholly original one. What sets Semple’s novel apart from previous such stories is her flair for comic timing and how she presents her story. Forgoing traditional narrative until the final parts of the novel, Semple uses e-mail, faxes and letters to present the complex persona that is Bernadette and the quiet but reassuring presence of Bee, and to illustrate the happily fake, all-American-with-Christian-values-they-shout-about characteristics of Audrey and Soo-Lin. Semple also ingeniously uses the formats of press releases and interviews with Bernadette’s former mentors and colleagues and architecture students to discuss her once brilliant career.
The novel falters when Semple reverts to traditional narration in part six. Bee’s narration seems laboured and prolonged for the sake of meeting a word count. Halfway through Bee’s endless narration, this reviewer stopped caring if Bernadette will ever be found.
On that note, the novel also ends rather anti-climatically. Bernadette’s mental illness which was prominent in the earlier part of the novel seems to have disappeared; Semple presents her titular character as a normal woman with no signs of having suffered from agoraphobia or anguish at having to be with a crowd of people. If Bernadette was not mentally ill all along, then she did a fine job in portraying herself as a mad woman.
Throughout the novel, Semple uses simple, everyday language, and the e-mail, fax and letter formats make Where’d You Go, Bernadette easy to read. It does not pretend to be anything other than a fun romp of a read. Despite its flaws towards the end, this is a good and enjoyable comic novel – just ignore the inconsistencies.