Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

     You've never met a literary character like Bernadette Fox.  She's a certified genius, but she's also highly eccentric.  She lives in a decaying mansion with her Microsoft engineer husband and their 15 year-old daughter in Seattle.  Bernadette is slightly agoraphobic - most of her personal errands are managed through a "virtual assistant" in India - and her condition deteriorates when the family begins to plan a vacation.  Their daughter, Bee, insists they visit sunny Antarctica, and Bernadette isn't exactly looking forward to the big trip.

     To make matters worse, she can't seem to stay out of neighborhood drama.  Their neighbor, Audrey, claims that Bernadette tried to run her over with a car, and the other parents at Bee's pre-prep school complain that Ms. Fox is not as involved with the school community as she should be.  Basically, everyone in Seattle hates the misunderstood creative genius.  Except Bee.  Bee knows that her mom is weird, but she also knows that Bernadette would do absolutely anything for her only daughter.  Bee even says that she and her mom are best friends!

     On the eve of their Antarctic Adventure, Bernadette disappears, seemingly without a trace.  But Bee knows that her mother would never abandon her family, so she begins her own private investigation of Bernadette's disappearance.  She gathers emails, letters, and other correspondences between her mother and various people to shed some light on her mother's state of mind, and possibly her whereabouts.  Told mostly through the voices of those who encountered her, Where'd You Go, Bernadette presents a wildly entertaining account of what happens when "an artist doesn't create."

     Bernadette Fox is like your crazy-cool aunt who wears giant sunglasses and a headscarf and self-medicates, but who will also surprise you by knowing the lyrics to a lesser-known Beatles song and offering witty commentary at unexpected moments.  She's fascinating, and the more I learned about her along the way, the more involved I became.  She is chic, glamorous, and stoic, but she's also charmingly flawed.  The formatting takes a minute to get used to - fragmented conversations, emails, lists, and letters - but it comes together perfectly and mimics the fragmented state of the characters.  Bernadette lives completely inside her head, but as readers, we rarely get a glimpse of her in first person.  That's ok, though, because the characters' perceptions of Bernadette are equally interesting and entertaining.

     Bernadette's adventure is both cynical and heartwarming, silly and poignant.  I am truly disappointed that the story is over because Bernadette is infectious, unpredictable, and she's definitely one of my new favorite literary characters.  But it's really not that surprising considering Maria Semple's resume (she has written for Saturday Night Live and Arrested Development).  No one is more qualified to create such perfectly quirky characters. 

     Where'd You Go, Bernadette will be released on August 14, 2012.

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