Sunday 7 September 2014

#CBR6 Book 92: "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" by Maria Semple

Page count: 306 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Because I read this book a month ago, and the plot is somewhat convoluted, I am resorting to the plot summary from Goodreads to help me explain what the book is about:

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fiercely 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's 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.

I know I'm ridiculously late to the party when it comes to this book. So far this year, it's already been reviewed by Badkittyuno and MelBivDevoe, and last year, for Cannonball V, it was reviewed by a staggering 15 people (search the archives to find the reviews). So a lot of my fellow Cannonballers already know how great this book is. I'm not even going to pretend that I've read all your reviews, sorry guys, but way to go for discovering this book before me.

Maria Semple was one of the staff writers on Arrested Development, so it should be no surprise that she can do funny, satirical and absurd. Even having noticed that a lot of people out there were excited about this book, I really had no idea what to expect. The book was quite different from what I thought going in. Comprised of e-mail correspondence, journal entries, letters, in-voices, receipts, reports, articles and other written forms of documentation, the book tells the story of Bernadette Fox, who won a MacArthur grant for her revolutionary architectural design and ended up becoming an agoraphobic recluse in Seattle. Her husband, Elgin Branch, is a lauded genius over at Microsoft, but is so busy with his own career that he hasn't really noticed just how off the rails his wife has gone. Bernadette hates the expectation and opinions of all the other mothers at the private school Bee attends, and refers to them dismissively as gnats. Through a series of escalating events, she ends up in a full-blown feud with one of them, her next door neighbour, Audrey, resulting in a devastating mudslide and total chaos at a recruitment drive for Bee's school.

Having agreed to take her beloved Bee to Antarctica, Bernadette is reluctant to renege on her promise, even though the trip clearly terrifies the heck out of her. And as the family are about to depart on their trip, Bernadette disappears, without a trace. It's Bee's attempts to trace her, as well as discover more about who her mother really is and used to be, that makes up the majority of the book.

This is such a funny book, and an amazingly quick and engrossing read. I read it all in one day, amazed at the twists and turns the story took. No matter what you think you've figured out, Semple manages to keep you surprised. While a very clever and entertaining satire, the book deals deftly with serious issues like mental illness, daring to be different and defying the expectations of society. I may have been late to join in with the praises sung for this book, but am glad I finally caught up.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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