BTW, if you’re on good reads, so am I!
I’m contrary, okay? That’s part of the explanation of why I waited so long to read Maria Semple’s Where’d you Go, Bernadette. Sure, it was called one of the best books of the year but so what? That didn’t mean I would like it. Plus, I knew the book was made up of emails and letters spliced together and that thing typically isn’t my bag. On top of that, I didn’t really love the premise: Bee’s mom, Bernadette, a woman with some issues, disappears and her daughter tries to put the pieces of her life together in order to map away to find her mom.
Maria Semple, the author, is funny. She’s written for Mad about You (remember that one?), Ellen, and Arrested Development. I definitely laughed out loud a few times.
During an intervention gone wrong, before Bernadette disappears, there is a transcript from the event:
(Her husband has already gone off on her, very frustrated, and upset.)
Dr. Kurtz: Another example of love is a hug.
Branch [Bernadette’s husband/Bee’s dad]: You’ve gone insane, Bernadette, it’s like aliens came down and replaced you with a replica but the replica is a drag queen demented version of you. I became so convinced of this that one night while you slept I reached across and felt your elbows. Because I thought, no matter how good they made the replica, they wouldn’t have gotten the pointy elbows right. But there they were, your pointy elbows. You woke up when I did that. Do you remember?
Bernadette: Yes, I remember” (Semple, 209).
For me, the biggest issue is Bee trying to understand all this. I kept feeling like something was off and about halfway through the book, I went back to the first page: “The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, ‘What’s important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.’ You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question. When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, ‘The truth is complicated. There is no way one person can ever know everything about another person.’
Mom disappears into thin air two days before Christmas without telling me? Of course it’s complicated. Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.
It doesn’t mean I can’t try” (Semple)
Aha! I figured it out. This book is mislabeled. It’s a Young Adult novel–not because it is immature in anyway but because it is about a daughter, about to start high school, trying to map her mother, trying to figure out and navigate this very adult world. For Bee, it is a coming of age story, almost. For Bernadette, it could be a middle age coming of age story but Bernadette is not the main character. Of course, she is the main subject of all the letters and emails and through those we get to learn a great deal about her, but it’s not the same. We learn about her as Bee does.
But as a character, I loved Bernadette. Yes, there is something tragic about her: “I love you, Bee,” Mom said. “I’m trying. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t” (Semple, 82).
Even more touching is Bee’s vision of her mother, which may be closer to the truth than anyone else’s. After all, don’t children often reveal the true nature of things? “When Here Comes the sun started, what happened? No the sun didn’t come out, but Mom opened up like the breaking through the clouds. You know how in the first few notes of that song, there’s something about George’s guitar that’s just so hopeful? It was like when Mom sang, she was full of hope, too” (Semple, 81).
(I know I am just giving you pieces but doesn’t this sound more, YA?)
Plus, Bernadette sound like a really incredible and unusual Mom. Here is one of her husband’s recollections: “…please indulge me while I tell you the story of the first and last time Bee ever claimed she was bored. Bernadette and I were driving Bee and a friend, both preschoolers to a birthday party. There was traffic. Grace said, “I’m bored.”
“Yeah,” Bee mimicked. “I’m bored.”
Bernadette pulled the car over, took off her seat belt, and turn around. “That’s right,” she told the girls. “You’re bored. And I’m going to let you in on a little secret about life. You think it’s boring now. Well, it only gets more boring. The sooner you learn it’s on you to make life interesting the better you’ll be.”
“OK,” Bee said quietly. Grace burst into tears and never had a playdate with us again” (Semple, 44)
Whatever anyone has to say about Bernadette, she raised an amazing child. And I’m going to stop there because this, in a way, a mystery, and I don’t want to give it away.
The other parts I enjoyed were supporting characters, another mom who claims to be a christian but who is a liar and a fraud.
“Audrey said quickly, “I am a Christian woman so I will forgive that.”
“Give me a break,” (Bee) said. “Christians don’t talk the way you talked to my mother” (Semple, 89).
Like I said, I do think the book should be in YA section. Did I enjoy reading it? Yes. Would I read it again? (I am notorious for rereading my favorite books.) No, I wouldn’t. But it was a fun ride.
It reminded me that the older I get, the more I understand the adults around me as people, not just Mom, Dad, Aunt, Grandmother, etc (although they are that too!). It’s illuminating.