Recap: First, we’re given a report card. Then, a letter. Next, some emails. A little dialogue mixed in. And suddenly, we’re piecing together a puzzle full of characters coming at the reader from a wide variety of sources. This is the organized chaos in which author Maria Semple tells the story of architect-turned-stay at home mom Bernadette Fox, her Microsoft whiz genius husband Elgin Branch, and their bright, ahead-of-her-years daughter Bee.
The report card is Bee’s. The letter was sent home to Bee’s parents by her established private school. The emails are between Bernadette Fox and her virtual personal assistant who lives in India and earns less than one dollar per hour. Yes, there’s something not quite right here.
So begins the story of Bernadette Fox, a woman who appears to have a serious case of neurosis, social anxiety, and a general fear of life — a woman who, initially, seems a little wacky. But as we learn more about her and her architectural experience, her award-winning work, we come to understand that maybe she’s a little unstable. Or maybe the instability is first, then the wackiness. The point is, it doesn’t matter.
This is a seemingly dark, but actually comical story about a woman who plans to take her family on a trip to Antarctica, until her husband confronts her about the information she’s been giving to her virtual assistant (a person who is so close to stealing everything from her that the FBI gets involved). Suddenly she escapes and is nowhere to be found, while Elgin and Bee attempt to deal with a number of other problems. So the question is, where’d you go, Bernadette?
Analysis: Again, the point is, it doesn’t matter. Where Bernadette went is probably the least important part of the book. It’s the funny, distracted telling of the story and the background of each character that hold far more significance. The scatterbrained format of the novel — a mixture of emails, letters, notes — helps move the book along in a fun way, and mirrors the scatterbrained mind that belongs to Bernadette.
The last few sections of the novel become a more straightforward narrative, told by Bee. She fills in the blanks for the reader and gives us a glimpse into how she feels about everything that’s happened to her and her family. Ultimately, the book is more about the relationship between a mother and her daughter, between a mother and her family, than it is about anything else. That, and maybe the laughter to be had along the journey. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a mystery story that I never wanted to solve — because unraveling it all was just so much fun.
MVP: Bernadette. Though seemingly unstable, she is easily the strongest and most resourceful character in the book. Her oddities only make her fun to read and laugh about — and that’s never a bad thing.
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