If I’d known the format of this book – entirely a series of e-mails, flashbacks, school documents, notes, and so forth – I assure you I wouldn’t have picked up this book. I generally know what I’m about to embark upon when I start a book, but I had heard so much about this novel that I dove in unprepared.
I couldn’t possibly be happier that I did, because Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple, will undoubtedly be one of my favorite books read in 2016.
The characters in a book are very important to me. If I don’t like any of the characters – and in particular, the main character – I am liable to dislike the book. Bernadette Fox is not only likeable, she will be one of my favorite book characters ever. I wish she was a real person and that she was my friend.
Don’t be put off by the format of the book. The author puts it all together so cleverly that it easily reads like a novel despite the lack of chapters and traditional dialogue.
Bernadette seems to have the perfect life. Her husband Elgie is a bigwig at Microsoft Corporation in Seattle. Their daughter Bee is a prodigy, super-smart and funny, despite having been born with a heart defect that nearly killed her as an infant. Bernadette is a prize-winning architect known for “green” design long before anyone even knew what that meant. The marriage is interesting and happy.
But what most people don’t know is that Bernadette is agoraphobic. She does everything possible to avoid having to leave her odd house (originally it was a school and for the most part, nothing has changed despite the fact that the family lives there). She takes Bee to school every day, and does what’s absolutely necessary outside the house. Beyond that, she has a personal assistant (a person somewhere in India she has never met but with whom she communicates via email and text messaging) who literally manages Bernadette’s life, and therefore the life of her family.
What carries this plot, however, and prevents the reader from wanting to dislike Bernadette and her weird life, is Bernadette herself. She is funny as hell and looks at life in a way that is so interesting and quirky. It’s no wonder that Bee loves her mother so very much.
And then, one day, not long before the family was to take a trip to Antartica to reward Bee for her perfect grades, Bernadette vanishes. No one knows why or where. Only Bee is certain that her mother will turn up.
I know this plot sounds weird, but I’m telling you that you can’t help but like Bernadette, and it makes the story fun and interesting. One of my favorite things about Semple’s writing is that, while there are quite a few characters and plot twists, and we only know these characters through emails and other documents, they don’t all sound the same. The reader gets a very good sense of who these people are, for better and for worse.
The ending was clever and satisfying and just the way I would have wanted it.
Please don’t do what I could have easily done – been turned off by the format. I can’t recommend this book enough.