by Maria Semple
Published: Back Bay Books
Genre: Fiction/Contemporary Epistolary Novel
Source: personal copy
From the back cover ...
"When fifteen-year-old Bee claims a family trip to Antarctica as a reward for perfect grades, her fiercely intelligent by agoraphobic mother, Bernadette, throws herself into preparations for the trip. Worn down by years of trying to live the Seattle life she never wanted, Bernadette is on the brink of a meltdown. As disaster follows disaster, she disappears, leaving her family to pick up the pieces. Which is exactly what Bee does, weaving together emails, invoices, and school memos to reveal the secret past that Bernadette has been hiding for decades. Where'd You Go, Bernadette is an ingeniously entertaining novel about a family coming to terms with who they are, and the power of a daughter's love for her imperfect mother."
I started reading this book because I wanted something funny to read for a very stressful week. The reviews I have seen called the book funny, the front cover says "Divinely funny." -New York Times and the back cover says "An uproarious comedy of manners." -Mark Haddon, "Great Summer Reads," People. ... etc. etc. Now that I have read the book I am very disturbed by what people consider humor. I did enjoy the book - the characters were well developed, if bordering on caricatures, and the story unfolded in an ingenious way. But why is this funny? I guess it is supposed to play as slapstick but to me it was pathos.
Bernadette had become so isolated and introverted that she hired a personnel assistant from India over the internet to do things like make reservations at local restaurants (which, FYI you can already make yourself over the internet without human contact). You would think that her husband might have, at some point over the last 15 years, noticed that his wife was falling apart and in need of some real help long before he did. I came to loathe Elgin - two words for you "ungovernable" and "girl" - neither of these should come out of your mouth and be applied to a spouse. As you get a better understanding of what Bee and Bernadette's lives have been like - I just keep wondering why people thought this was funny. The 'gnats' were over the top awful people, and Bernadette wasn't exactly winning awards with her behaviors - she was only sympathetic at first because she was clearly so damaged and because of her relationship with her daughter. I can see the whole 'you think everything is fine but it's really, really not and you don't realize until it's all over how badly the situation you were living affected your mood' - the house thing for example - but letting this go on for 15 years ?!?.
Bernadette felt like a character from the 1970s who inexplicable got sucked into present day Seattle - no wonder she was messed up. The book, as far as I could tell, was a study into family dysfunction. The overall pattern is basically a TV movie - married-couple, midlife crisis but was written well-enough to rise above triteness. (Has Mark Haddon ever even seen a comedy of manners? what the heck was he talking about?). So once I realized what I was reading and gave up on the idea that this was a funny book, I enjoyed reading it.
Small rant - so Elgin is a genius designer/programmer whose TED talk was allowed to run long (rriiighhtt - everyone at TED talks thinks they are genius - no way they would give it up like this for Elgin's talk, especially based on what little his talk was - seriously have you watched some of the talks?) so it is totally 'normal' for him to be putting in long hours, ignoring co-workers, ignoring his daughter and the dramas that going on at her school, ignoring the fact that his wife is suffering severe depression - but that is all okay because we must respect his genius. Her genius is far game though ? Female geniuses must be knocked down if they are rude or quirky or obsessed with their work (referring to stuff before her 'disappearance' as an architect). The whole sacrifice for genius verses sacrifice of genius thing - not my favorite setup in a story. I will get off my soapbox and just toss this under the 'this story isn't meant to be realistic' pile and get on with things.
I just realized that this review isn't making much sense - basically as a get out of my problems and visit someone elses' for a while form of escapism - the book works well - a the mid- what the hell am I doing with my life -crisis pushed over the top with the poor misunderstood genius conceit. I didn't find it to be funny, and I certainly didn't laugh out loud while I read it, but as a redemption arc ride, I liked the book. The end was also good and avoided becoming too trite. I have to admit - it was kind of a 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' where you are deeply suspicious that the relationship is not going to work out nicely over time - still mad at Elgin. I guess it would be a three and a half claws. (The second half of the book started to drag.)
Apropos of nothing I have friends and colleagues who have worked at McMurdo Station - the visit to Antarctica, that part I was really jealous of - you can see the live cam of the station here http://www.usap.gov/videoClipsAndMaps/mcmwebcam.cfm and you can read updates from the American stations in Antarctica at http://antarcticsun.usap.gov/.
There is much more going on down there than people realize (including pollution - turns out that the conditions have accidentally bread superbacteria and contamination has gotten out).