Sunday, 15 December 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple: Antarctica, Agoraphobia and Loveable Quirkiness

Where'd You Go Bernadette doll
If you read Where'd You Go, Bernadette, you'll enjoy this photo from the author's website! Image source.

I can feel the irrationality and anxiety draining my store of energy like a battery-operated racecar grinding away in the corner. This is energy I will need to get through the next day. But I just lie in bed and watch it burn, and with it any hope for a productive tomorrow.

This is very uncharacteristic of me to say, but Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a real gem of a novel. I'll probably edit that out later, but there, I've said it. After living in Spain, Los Angeles and Colorado as a child, Maria Semple received a BA in English from Barnard College in 1986 before screenwriting for Beverly Hills, 90210 and writing her first novel, This One is Mine, in 2008.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette, published in 2012, is a marvellous, intelligent second novel. Semple tells of Bernadette Fox - up-and-coming architect turned reclusive, fishing-vest-wearing trouble-maker - and her disappearance before the family's scheduled trip to Antarctica

The novel is pieced together by Bernadette's daughter, Bee (full name, Balakrishna), as she sets herself the task of unravelling the mystery behind her mother's disappearance. Bee's intelligence is off the scale, she helps out at homework club, and to top it off, she was born with a heart defect but remains averse to sympathy or pity.

You can tell that mothers on the Galer Street playground would be uttering, "Why can't you be more like Bee Branch?" when their kids are setting up drug cartels rather than playing shakuhachis (Japanese flutes) like Bernadette Fox's wonderful daughter. 

A playground, it must be said, that Bernadette Fox does not set foot on, particularly after she takes to employing a personal virtual assistant from India to fuel her existing agoraphobic tendencies

Where'd You Go Bernadette doll
Lovely cover, no? Image source.
An aspect I particularly enjoyed about the novel is how Bernadette's husband, Elgie Branch, works for Microsoft. Elgie is worshipped by society for his contributions to technology, and he's known as "the man with the fourth-most-watched TED talk of all time". The following quote, by a certain Audrey Griffin, probably made me laugh more than any other moment in the novel:

I don't give a fig about Ted. I don't know who he is and I don't care what he says during this talk you refuse to shut up about.

It's a superb novel of escaping life, heading into the unknown and facing anxiety head-on. Maria Semple writes in such a quirky, loveable way, and I'm so keen to read her first novel, This One is Mine, over my Christmas break.

My Mum is an architect and has been facing a rough patch lately, so I'm certainly going to buy her this novel for Christmas! Even as a non-reader (awful, I know), I'm sure she'll love it once she gets into it.

On a side note, I now really, really want to go to Antarctica. 

I'd recommend Where'd You Go, Bernadette for: being stuck in a rut, anxiety, low mood, agoraphobia, anyone in need of something fun and original!


Shannon @ River City Reading said...

I was so convinced that this book couldn't possibly be as good as everyone was saying, but boy was I wrong! It's such a fun read, but still has so much to say. There are so many different people I could recommend it to, too.

Brian Joseph said...

It actually sounds very original and out of the box.

I believe that the New York Times gave this a great review so there is no need to edit your comment :)

Jennifer Hartling said...

I loved this book. Funny, intelligent..just spot-on!

Repsych said...

Fantastic review Lucy. I didn't know that Maria Semple wrote for Beverly Hills 90210!
I have her 1st novel on my to-read list many books, so little time...

tolstoytherapy said...

Thanks Angeliki! You must let me know if you read her first novel. It's interesting to think how her tv work has influenced her novels!

tolstoytherapy said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed it too! It was just what I needed, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what the author writes next.

tolstoytherapy said...

It was definitely out of the box, which was one of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much! I think every so often an unusual (even slightly eccentric) novel is just what the book industry needs.

tolstoytherapy said...

I'm really happy that you liked it too, Shannon! It was a really fun book, but had so many intelligent layers to it as well. I'm sure it's a novel a lot of people will be giving as Christmas presents!