2 Following


Where'd You Go, Bernadette: A Novel

Where'd You Go, Bernadette - Maria Semple When I started this book, I was not sure I would like it. It seemed strange, a bit discombobulated, perhaps a bit disorganized. However, it turned out to be a really wonderful, delightful read. On a certain level, it is humorous, tender and tragic, all of at once. It is the story about all kinds of relationships, the story of a family that no longer communicates, that dances around each other as they search for meaning in their lives, in all the wrong places. The meaning of family is lost in the confusion. The characters are all flawed except for one, Bee Fox, the teenage daughter of Elgin and Bernadette.
Elgin is an upwardly mobile, well respected nerd, working for Microsoft, receiving international accolades for his accomplishments. Bernadette is an international, award winning, female architect in a male dominated occupation. They are surrounded by people who can only be described as “phony”, working to build up appearances, rather than honest relationships, working to create impressions rather than friendships, working to achieve success in the workplace, rather than in the home. They are in denial about their lack of ethics or compassion for others. They seem woefully unaware of the consequences of their behavior. (The realtor had to know full well what she was doing when she handled the secret deal for Bernadette’s neighbor. She did what any cutthroat realtor would do. She represented the seller, however, and what she did was the precipitous cause of long term emotional pain for Bernadette.)They were all following a recipe for failure for someone or other, if not themselves.
Bernadette’s downward spiral begins when she has a row with an influential neighbor. Angry, she sells her crowning achievement and is devastated when it is purchased by someone, secretly acting for her nasty neighbor, who then destroys the building and her architectural legacy. Because of this petty feud, without anyone’s notice, she begins to recede from the business and social world.
She and Elgin move to Seattle where she purchases an old girl’s school to renovate. When she has difficulty conceiving a child, she declines further. When finally, her daughter Bala Krishna (divine child), better known as Bee, is born with a birth defect, she vows never to create another masterpiece if she can be cured. When she survives, she becomes obsessed with her vow to G-d and refuses to do anything else creative in her life, but she doesn’t share her reasons why, with anyone. She allows the house to sink into a decaying state of disrepair. She becomes more antisocial, complains about everyone, ridiculing them, and doesn’t like being around people. She does no work, participates in rare projects at Bee’s school and becomes rather reclusive. Her repartees with people are sarcastic which does not help her “make friends or influence people”.
At the same time as she recedes from the world, she is a warm and compassionate mother and a faithful wife, although a poor homemaker. She does not cook, takeout is the order of the day, and she retreats to a trailer on the property, more often than not. Bee calls it her Petit Trianon. When I read about Bernadette’s habit of knitting away as her projects were created, I thought of Madame Defarge, although I would not characterize Bernadette as a villain, but rather an eccentric with an incredibly creative mind who seems terribly misunderstood in her current state.
As Bernadette flounders, Elgin’s career soars and he is rarely home. He is a workaholic for Microsoft. He pads around in his stocking feet, makes presentations that are lauded by scholars worldwide and in general, seems lost in himself, naïve and a bit eccentric too. When his new admin, Sue Lin (a kind of universal gal Friday for his department, in charge of making all things run smoothly), a Galer private school “gnat”, an enemy of Bernadette’s, becomes involved in his private life, he also becomes tempted by the apple in Eve’s garden. Sue Lin is a good friend of Audrey, the Fox’s jealous neighbor, and the two of them tear Bernadette apart, daily, always looking for fodder for their nasty tongues and minds. Sue Lin has eyes for Elgin.
Bee, is exceptionally bright, mature and well adjusted. She respects her father, loves her mother and excuses all of their foibles good-naturedly. She is happily making plans to go to boarding school, eagerly looking forward to it, actually, and just wants them to take one family trip, to Antarctica before she leaves. Her mom finds it hard to make plans which involve “people” participation, but she and Elgin reluctantly agree.
Bernadette immediately uses her “personal secretary”, Manjula, a woman working in a call center in India, to take care of all of her purchases and appointments, unbeknownst to Elgin, who thinks she has come back to life, organizing and arranging the trip.
Soon everyone learns that it was a very poor idea indeed, to use Manjula, since she gave her all of their personal information, and although she seemed to make everything happen with ease and aplomb, the FBI informs the family that Manjula is involved in a criminal ring, stealing identities. Manjula was a well kept secret, but now, because Elgin has also taken his admin, the “gnat”, better known as parent, into his confidence, she gossips and instigates with her friend Audrey, Bernadettes jealous neighbor, attempting to develop a closer relationship with Elgin for herself.
Worried about Bernadette and the way she has declined, allowing their home to decay and not having normal social relationships, his concern increases when he finds out about Manjula, then about the terrible mudslide which was really Audrey’s fault, since she was the neighbor who insisted the blackberry vines holding the Fox’s hill together be removed for the school publicity brunch which was meant to attract upper class “Mercedes parents”, changing their image from second class “Subaru parents”, then about the accident in which she was falsely accused of running over Audrey’s foot, then her secret email to her friend Paul and her musings when she was depressed, thinking of ending it all, but not meaning it, he rushes to judgment and calls in a doctor to have her committed and convinces him to take her immediately to a hospital where she can be treated. The doctor, overly impressed with his own idea of himself, insists on an interview first but then intercedes when he finds out the FBI is involved in an investigation concerning them. Circumstantial evidence is making Bernadette seem a danger to herself and others, something she surely is not. Personalities, arrogance and self righteousness were the order of the day. Somehow, defying all odds, Bernadette escapes and disappears. Bee is devastated. Then, while at school, she receives an anonymous letter, everything that has happened, and she writes a book, discovered by her roommate (Bee is not doing that well socially, either), who immediately turns it over to the dean. She is dismissed from Choate, and in her anger, she devises a plan to search for her mom.
On every page, the reader will laugh at the caricature of real life that the author paints. The women are gossipy and petty, the men work-driven and possessed with the search for acclaim, all are in self-denial wanting the wrong things out of life, deceiving themselves and overlooking the important things they are giving up or losing. All of them are a bit larger than life in all of their reactions, and as the author draws them so cleverly, we might even laugh at ourselves, witnessing some of the silly little flaws in her characters, looming larger than life in ours.
Over reactions were the order of the day. Well drawn characters symbolizing the modern ills of society were not always likeable but always enjoyable to watch, as they performed, and yes, perform is really the active word here because they were all acting in one capacity or another, playing the role they thought appropriate, the role that society seemed to want of them. The only truly real character was Bee! She was herself always, honest, forgiving, filled with the joie de vivre, eager and bright, courageous in her convictions, experiencing love and sharing it with others.
That is what really makes this book remarkable. All of the events and characters are too frighteningly close to reality! They are all supersmart: over-achievers, social climbers, immature victims of themselves and their own behavior. Yet, they are too close to real life characters, showing little compassion for others in their climb up the ladder, engaging in petty rumors and gossip without regard to the pain and/or shame they inspire, turning a blind eye to the needs of anyone but themselves.
In the end, however, they all have aha moments of their selfish ways, and they repent or show remorse accordingly. However, this may be the weakest part of the story, or the fairytale version, since it all falls into place too neatly, becoming a bit tedious. It is as if the chess pieces were moved by someone else, and so, even the ending is an exaggeration, a caricature of reality.
The characters are charming, even with their fatal flaws, because eventually they realize how “evil” they have been. Infidelity is excused and forgiven, malicious behavior is explained away, erratic episodes are accepted and everyone is one big happy family again. It is a bit Pollyanna, but it is a pleasure to read. Bee, the divine child, lives up to her name!