Bernadette Fox is notorious.
To Elgie Branch, a Microsoft wunderkind, she’s his hilarious, volatile, talented, troubled wife.
To fellow mothers at the school gate, she’s a menace.
To design experts, she’s a revolutionary architect.
And to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, quite simply, mum.
Then Bernadette disappears. And Bee must take a trip to the end of the earth to find her.
Before I dive into Where’d You Go Bernadette this might be good time to talk a little about the Women’s Prize for Fiction and fiction written by women. OK, it’s probably not but I’m going to do it anyway.
There a three books on this years shortlist that I really wanted to read: this one, Life After Life and oddly the winner, May We Be Forgiven. And from the longlist I’d also have gone for Gone Girl, and The Marlowe Papers. What attracted me to them? The author (Kate Aktinson), other people (Simon and Gone Girl), the quality and reader buzz (Life After Life), x factor (May We Be Forgiven), the world needs more good prose poetry (The Marlowe Papers)…
What I’m saying is that no book had the same reason for me wanting to read it but one thing that didn’t enter my head was I can’t read this because a women wrote it. I understand there are people out there who do? I can’t even comprehend that.
I’d say that women and men do write differently, and you can debate that with me if you like, but neither is better at it than the other. There are stories by both sexes that appeal to both sexes and some books that will appeal to one sex over the other. And sometimes you won’t know if a book is going to appeal to you until you try it.
And that brings me back to Where’d You Go Bernadette. I thought from the blurb that this would be my kind of book as I was hooked by the mystery element. And there is a mystery. But there is also a family drama, disputes with neighbours, and a holiday. The mystery is a consequence of the drama of the other elements rather than the centre of the of book.
The thing you immediately notice is that it’s made of up of a patchwork of personal reports, emails, faxes, letters and a few other things - basically all the different ways that people communicate though throughout the focus is Bernadette but the voice is centred around her daughter Bee.
And as I was reading it I forgot I was waiting for the mysterious disappearance and when it happened, well, it was a surprise.
In fact, the whole book was a wonderful surprise partly because it is a fantasy, at least to me as I don’t live in Seattle in an expensive house, with a husband that is very high up in Microsoft with a genius daughter but I was completely enchanted. Part of that is the snark that Bernadette unleashes, it’s the actions of her ludicrous neighbour and Bernadette’s interactions with those around her and it’s partly how well Maria Semple has planned everything. She needs to as there are all these different sources and view points that need to hang together for the bigger picture to become clear.
As it is also a family drama Semple does a very good job of not completely demonising any character completely, even the husband is seen in his entirety. But it’s Bernadette that takes most of our attention. And she’s not really what you first think. Or at least how she got to be where she is isn’t what you might think it is.
But Semple is skilled at releasing the right information at the right time through the various ‘evidence’ presented though accurate is sometimes hideously biased just like real life.
I laughed and I cried though I only cried once. There is a strong message about feeling trapped and trapping yourself and hiding from the world and what happens when you go through the motions in life. And this is what makes it a strong book, yes it’s funny but the characters all have identifiable problems even if they do take place in a fantasy location that most of us will never experience directly.
I highly recommend it and I can see why it made this year’s shortlist.