I’d been dragging myself around the house the last two weeks with a sinus infection so checked out “Where’d you go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple. I remember seeing this title in a list of book club favorites. I saw that Cate Blanchett is on the Kindle dust cover — Yay! She will play title character “Bernadette” in the movie adaptation opening Aug. 9, 2019, another reason I thought I better read it now.
The form the novel took reminded me of the epistolary form encountered in books like Jane Austen’s “Lady Susan” or Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Letters, emails, text-messages, and faxes, just some of the paper trail, were pieced together with dates to show progression of time. Bee (or Balakrishna) Branch, 15, was the narrator and the daughter of two brilliant people: award-winning architect Bernadette Fox, and Elgin (Elgie) Branch, TED talk superstar, lead of fictional project, Samantha 2, at Microsoft. (He’s a celebrity in Seattle for the TED talk about using your mind to control a robot.)
Bee asked to go to Antarctica at Christmas – their summer — after getting a perfect report card during her schooling at Galer Street. From the first page, she told the reader that her mother disappeared two days before Christmas, before their trip to Antarctica. I went into the novel waiting for that moment. What kept me reading:
- I felt like a detective while reading. I had this case file of information to work through. The narrator Bee pieced the information together like a lawyer laying out the facts of a case on the disappearance of Bernadette.
- Bernadette’s descriptions of the people and places in Seattle are downright funny. I’m still not sure why Canadians are one of the reasons that Bernadette doesn’t like going out into public, even after she explained. Slow drivers annoy me, too, and parking in cities. Check. Check. Completely entertaining.
- The ways people understood mental health and illness were sometimes subconscious. The house that Elgin and Bernadette bought and moved into in Seattle was once a Catholic home for wayward girls. The home was falling down around them. As an architect, Bernadette should have been able to turn the place into something spectacular. She seemed paralyzed. Elgin didn’t do anything to remodel, but he wasn’t home often enough probably to oversee that. The state of their house corresponded to the way their married life had come: unbalanced and undone.
- I learned about travel to Antarctica. Penguins are in Antarctica, and polar bears are at the North Pole. I seriously thought polar bears and penguins lived in the same place because of zoos and Polar Express. I can’t wait to see the movie to see the places Bee and her Dad head off to in search of answers about Bernadette.
- “People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society” (136) That’s a great line. A whole thesis paper could develop this idea. Bernadette embodied the Langston Hughes’ poem, “A Dream Deferred.” She received this statement in a note from a friend and former colleague.
So why did Bernadette stop creating? She suffered major disappointments as an architect in Los Angeles. They were so big in her mind that she felt like she was fleeing them when Elgin took the job at Microsoft. She saw herself as a failure. She then suffered miscarriages and saw more failure. When Bee was born with a congenital condition involving her heart, Bernadette made a deal with God to give up her “visions” if He kept Bee alive.
I think when I saw that statement and remembered her view of artist Dale Chihuly that she writes about in one of the letters to her virtual assistant I saw something more. I have seen Chihuly’s work when he had a showing at the Dayton Art Museum. It’s amazing. Bernadette appeared to not share my delight though:
“In the ‘70s, Dale Chihuly was already a distinguished glassblower when he got into a car accident and lost an eye. But that didn’t stop him. A few years later, he had a surfing mishap and messed up his shoulder so badly that he was never able to hold a glass pipe again. That didn’t stop him, either. Don’t believe me? Take a boat out on Lake Union and look in the window of Dale Chihuly’s studio. He’s probably there now, with his eye patch and dead arm, doing the best, trippiest work of his life” (62)
Despite personal tragedies in his life, Chihuly continued to create. Despite her tragedies, Bernadette could continue to create, too. She may have subconsciously known the road she needed to take when dealing with personal tragedies.
I enjoyed the way the story was told as much as the story itself so looked up Maria Semple. She has written for TV shows before writing novels. She wrote for Arrested Development, Mad About You, Suddenly Susan, and Beverly Hills 90210, and Ellen to name a few. As much as I liked this novel, I didn’t like the F-bombs or God’s name as a curse word. The latter made the novel hard to keep reading, while at the same time I did want to find out what happened.
As far as intended audience, I know the book has a 15-year-old narrator, but I would say it’s not YA fiction. I could see this novel included in a study of women’s literature where students discuss marriage, motherhood, and definitely the treatment of mental health and illness in the novel. For more information about the work of Maria Semple, go to https://www.mariasemple.com/books/. To see the trailer for the upcoming movie, go to https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2365580/?ref_=nv_sr_1?ref_=nv_sr_1