Where’d You Go Bernadette is a great read by Maria Semple. Maria has written other books including one other fictional book: This One Is Mine. She has also written for TV shows including Arrested Development, Ellen and Mad About You. I saw part of the first episode of Arrested Development and I have decided that it will be the next sitcom that I catch up on, once I have run out of one of the 6 that I am watching now. Admittedly I am on my second run through of Boston Legal, but to be fair, it only ran for 5 seasons. I am on season 5 of Mad Men and I am hoping that some of season 6 will be available before I have run out of season five. If not: well here comes Arrested Development. I thought Arrested Development was a very funny somewhat wacky satire, with a mix of unlikely, yet winning characters. somewhat like the characters in Pride and Prejudice and Boston Legal, and Niles Crane in Frasier. They are somewhat exaggerated, but not too far out, and in an odd way extremely likable. That combination makes great satire.
And Where’d You Go Bernadette is very much like that. Very funny, odd situations, but recognizable.
I am not sure that Bernadette is the main character, perhaps it is Bee, her brilliant and very giving, kind daughter. Bernadette was an acclaimed architect, a professional who could not follow the traditional rules, and was able for a while to make her own. She left the traditional architecture firms to do her work her own way, and created such unusual buildings that she won a McArthur grant. However, her personality was so hypersensitive, that she had to retreat into unlikely places.
Her marriage was surprisingly traditional except for her choice of a living space. The family consists of Bernadette, her husband, Elgin, who works at Microsoft, and Bee, their daughter who attends a local private school.
By the way the book provides some really fun insights about work at Microsoft. True or not, they are amusing and enviable.
Bernadette finds life to be overwhelming. She retreats from normal work by taking on projects such as her housing that is falling apart. She retreats from interactions with Bee’s school by removing herself from their email list. She retreats from normal interactions with the business world by hiring an “assistant” from India to manage daily transactions and bill paying.
When her husband and others who are concerned about her believe her to be mentally ill, Bernadette withdraws again, but this time to Antarctica. The rest of the story is about Bee’s determination to find her mother.
Because Bee’s experience was that her mother was there. In the hospital while she underwent many heart surgeries, at her meals at night, at her school, to pick her up, always there for Bee in spirit and in interest, even when Bee wanted some withdrawal of her own.
So when Bernadette finds the reality overwhelming, and really leaves, Bee is horrified, sad, lonely, and frantic to find her mother. The story explores the varieties and tragedies of mother love and father love, from the child’s perspective as well as from the adult perspective. And it does this in Antarctica, with its brilliant light, piercing cold, and otherworldly ambience. And does this while being extremely funny, very sad, and so real. This combination doesn’t seem to be possible, but gosh, it is.
Read this book: “Where’d you go Bernadette” **** (The four stars reflect the quality of the book. I just finished Ruth Reichl’s book “Garlic and Sapphires” about her expereinces as a food critic for the New York Times. that was another good read, but can wait for another post.