Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple. New York, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012. 336 pages. $25.99, hardcover.
From: Heavy Feather Review
Re: Where’d You Go, Bernadette
You know from the beginning that Bernadette Fox is missing, and that her daughter, Bee, is doing what she can to find her mother, including reading e-mails to, from, and about Bernadette; reviewing memorandums sent home from her school, the Galer Street School; reviewing presentation transcripts; newspaper and magazine articles; and her memories, hoping to find, not just where Bernadette is, but what happened to pull apart her family.
A reclusive architect, former MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, and accidental Seattlite, Bernadette Fox does what she can to come into as little contact with the outside world as possible. From hiring a personal assistant who lives in India (to make dinner reservations, order things online, and set up doctor’s appointments) to avoiding other parents with children at the Galer Street School (where Bee, the only child of Bernadette and her husband, Elgin Branch, attends), Fox is ill-prepared when Bee, after earning high marks, cashes in on a promise made years earlier and convinces her parents to go with her to Antarctica over Christmas break.
But Elgin Branch, on the cusp of a major project launch at Microsoft (where he is something of a wunderkind), and Bernadette, decide their only choice is to give in and go with Bee, who is a year away from going to a boarding school.
(Why Antarctica? Because she’s been reading about it, and because they will take a cruise to get there, and because Bee wants to go, which is reason enough for her and her parents.)
So plans are made, and necessities are bought (thanks to that personal assistant in India), and vacation time is chased in. Bags are packed and last-minute to-dos are done. And then, without warning, in a house full of people, Bernadette disappears.
(To tell you the circumstances around which Bernadette disappears would do you, and the story, a disservice).
Finding out where Bernadette is may fuel Maria Semple’s masterful epistolary novel, but along the way, the mystery of where she is gets overshadowed by the mystery of who she is, and how she is the way she is. And you can add to these mysteries the city of Seattle, which becomes something of a character (with its uppity parents and ferry boats and restaurant that rotates inside the Space Needle).
Where Bernadette went matters, but what drove her there, what she did when she arrived, and what she did before she left also matter. (And where she is will surprise you.)
And Bee, who is piecing together her mother story by story—much like how an architect might approach a structure—is left to make sense of what remains.
William Henderson is never far from his phone, where he is often tweeting (@Avesdad) or blogging (hendersonhouseofcards.com). He is a frequent contributor to Thought Catalog, and has been published in The Rumpus, Mental Shoes, Revolution House, Specter, and Used Furniture Review, among others. He writes a bimonthly column for Hippocampus Magazine, is a regular contributor to Peripheral Surveys, and published his first chapbook, Edgeways, through NAP, in 2011.