Where'd You Go, Bernadette - Maria Semple

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom. Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic. To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.






In the mid-1990s, Bernadette Fox was an up-and-coming architect in Los Angeles, quickly developing fame for her eco-friendly designs years before it was trendy. Her most famous work was a project called The Twenty Mile House, a project where she set out to build a house made entirely from materials sourced from within 20 miles of the build site. Her career was sky-rocketing, she was being compared to Frank Lloyd Wright... and then the thing happened. Obviously I'm not going to spoil what that thing is for future readers, but this thing was enough to cause Bernadette to have a bit of a breakdown, pack up her and her Microsoft-employed husband and move to Seattle, Washington. 


I'd say I never considered myself a great architect. I'm more of a creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares. 


Fast forward years later, Bernadette and husband Elgin are living in a former girls' home in pretty dilapidated shape. Bernadette had suffered a number of miscarriages but now has her daughter, Bee. Bee was born prematurely and with a heart defect, which caused Bernadette to pull away from her architectural work, instead dedicating herself to being a stay at home mom. Though Bernadette settled in Seattle to get away from a painful incident in her past, that past slowly finds its way to her again, tarnishing the little bit of happiness she's been able to scrape together over the years. 


Bernadette flew up to look at houses. She called to say she had found the perfect place, the Straight Gate School For Girls, in Queen Anne. To anyone else, a crumbling reform school might seem like an odd place to call home. But this was Bernadette, and she was enthusiastic. Bernadette and her enthusiasm were like a hippo and water: get between them and you'll be trampled to death. We moved to Seattle. {Elgin speaking}



Now Bee is a healthy teen but Bernadette's depression and anxiety has increased over the years (in one conversation she even admits to briefly having suicidal thoughts) to the point of her developing agoraphobia. Her behavior gradually becomes more manic. When Bee comes home from school one day with an excellent report card, she reminds her parents of a promise they made of her being granted whatever she wanted if she made this happen. Bee cashes this offer in, asking for a family trip to Antarctica.


Bernadette pushes herself to put her agoraphobia aside to make this trip happen for her daughter. Unfortunately the process proves too much for Bee's mom, who suddenly goes missing one day. Bee then has to gather a collection of paperwork -- emails from school officials, neighbors, Bernadette's virtual assistant; receipts; invoices; police reports; even FBI documents -- to try to piece together what happened to her mom, repeatedly asking herself that title question -- Where'd you go, Bernadette?!



Greetings from sunny Seattle, where women are "gals," people are "folks," a little bit is a "skosh," if you're tired you're "logy," if something is slightly off it's "hinky," you can't sit Indian style but you can sit "crisscross applesauce," when the sun is out it's never called "sun" but always "sunshine," boyfriends and girlfriends are "partners," nobody swears but someone occasionally might "drop the f-bomb," you're allowed to cough but only into your elbow, and any request, reasonable or unreasonable, is met with "no worries." 

Have I mentioned how much I hate it here?

~letter Bernadette writes to a former colleague in LA


I have to admit, I was a little worried at the start of reading this one. I liked the premise but a few chapters in I was feeling myself struggling to get my mental footing with all the bouncing around between letters and characters. I would encourage anyone who is having a similar experience in their reading of this book to stick with it because the flow does get easier the further in you get (at least it did for me). After about ...  I'd say the scene where Bee is describing the heated back & forth her mom had with their neighbor Audrey Griffin (about 80 pages in) ... is about where I started to really get into the story and then it was just all uphill enjoyment from then on! I still struggled a bit to keep some of the characters straight in parts, but it wasn't too bad.


There was one section that did drag just a bit for me -- that was the article that went on for several pages discussing Bernadette's rise in the architectural world. It does offer good background and insight into her character, but not super gripping reading for me for most of that. It is important though because the closing part of that article gives the reader a look into what caused Bernadette to snap in L.A. 


While the format of the novel makes for fun reading, what I think I loved most was just the heart the story had to it. I liked the complexity to Bernadette's character and several times felt I was reading a kindred spirit in her. I liked how on the outside Semple writes Bernadette as a chill sort with these great wisecracks and observations on the people around her, but then every so often you get these scenes where you can see the hurt underneath the jokes. I immediately recognized and bonded with this soul who covers pain with humor and self-deprecation because I'm hella guilty of doing the same thing on a daily basis! 


I loved the theme of the importance of family. No matter how bad she's struggling or hurting, Bernadette will swallow it for the sake of her daughter and her husband. Likewise, daughter Bee literally goes to the ends of the earth to find out what happened to her mom when everyone else has given up on her. Bernadette's husband repeatedly shows himself willing to reconstruct his life and work to help Bernadette with anything she thinks will help lessen the strains of her mental illness. That's not to say the family is perfect. In fact, I loved them for their imperfect realness -- they get angry, they get frustrated, they give each other doses of tough love and come back stronger than ever. It's the kind of family everyone wants to come from! 


I was all torture and adrenaline. I had no thoughts, no emotions. Inside me roiled something so terrible that God knew he had to keep my baby alive, or this torrent within me would be unleashed on the universe. 


Also not to be missed is the bonus feature (at least in the paperback edition) of Semple's super short story "Dear Mountain Room Parents". It was originally printed in The New Yorker and is hilarious! It's basically just an email chain that tells of this Day of the Dead celebration planned for a children's school that gets horribly misinterpreted thanks to overblown political correctness. Loved it! (I actually found a link for it online, so you can read it here and see what I mean.)