Michelle A Shannon, April 23, 2013 (view all comments by Michelle A Shannon)
In Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, Bernadette Fox is not your ordinary mother. She does not volunteer her time at her daughter’s private school. Her house is a former convent. She does not cook or clean, using a maid service and virtual assistant in India to fulfill those motherly roles - cleaning and reservation-making. To Bee though, her mother is perfect, made even more so when she agrees to Bee’s proposal for a trip to Antarctica for their entire family. As plans are made, Bernadette finds herself the victim of a set of unfortunate circumstances that soon escalates to the absurd. Hesitant to leave for Antarctica in the first place, it is only a matter of time before the entire situation becomes more than she can handle. It is up to Bee’s unwavering loyalty and deepest love to find out where her mother went and to right the pieces that caused her to flee.
The cast of characters is large but that does not mean it is difficult to distinguish between them. In fact, the story would not have worked quite as well had there been fewer characters. To perform the sleights of hand necessary to pull off its intricate plot, a large cast is essential. Moreover, it highlights how easily it can be to mix up a story, blow a scene out of proportion, and in general cause the kind of chaos Bernadette faces. Ms. Semple does an excellent job maneuvering the reader through the complexities while giving life to the distinct individuals.
One cannot discuss Where'd You Go, Bernadette without discussing its humor because it plays such a large role throughout the story. Nothing is sacred, except for the bond between Bernadette and Bee. The entire narrative is very tongue-in-cheek, skewering the upper-middle-class/private school demographic, Seattle’s weather, the cruise ship industry, Microsoft, neighborhoods in general, and so much more. Bernadette’s abhorrence of anything considered mainstream is quirkily endearing and provides many a laugh as she clashes with her conventional neighbors on multiple fronts. However, a reader could quickly turn to anger because some of situations that lead up to Bernadette’s disappearance are absolutely infuriating if one allows them to be. Ms. Semple skillfully diffuses the tension through her nod to the absurd, and a reader can do nothing but chuckle at the multiple misunderstandings and deliberate miscommunications that eventually lead to Bernadette’s disappearance.
Yet, Where'd You Go, Bernadette is not all laughs and satirical situations. At its heart is the very real and touching drama of a young girl desperately searching for her mother, and a mother struggling to find her identity years after her entire life was turned upside-down. Bernadette’s quirky behavior, however amusing, has a dark note to it, as one realizes that it is not due solely to her refusal to be normal but also due to depression, the reasons for which are understandable once revealed in full. In fact, her mental struggles are something to which most readers will be able to relate.
Even before Bernadette’s disappearance, a reader knows that their mother-daughter relationship is special. Actually, it may be the only thing keeping Bernadette grounded in a city she detests and without the job she adores. Bee is precocious and adorable, filled with an enthusiasm for life most people will only ever dream of having, while her embrace of all of her mother’s eccentricities denotes a level of self-comfort not normally seen in a teenager. Her willingness to accept her mother wholeheartedly and in spite of all of her faults is at once endearing and incredibly poignant. Readers could only be so lucky to have such a loving and accepting relationship as the one between Bee and her mother.
Kathleen Wilhoite is absolutely superb as the narrator. Because the story is told through letters, voicemail, news articles and other methods of communication, keeping the individual voices separate and distinct is key for an understandable and enjoyable audiobook experience. Ms. Wilhoite excels at this. Moreover, her performance brings each character to life, making them more than the document they’ve written. She narrates in such a way that it is as if a listener were standing in the room as the individual character is typing out his or her message. The resulting intimacy enhances the overall experience because they are truly telling the story, and for that reason, it is difficult to imagine obtaining the same level of satisfaction for the story and understanding of the characters via the print version. For those on the fence about downloading this as an audiobook, rest assured that it is one of the most entertaining audio experiences of the year.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a brilliant mockery of conventional norms but also a touching portrayal of the unconditional love between mother and child. In addition, there is an exploration of the darker side of depression and the loss of one’s identity that tempers the humor. Bernadette’s inability to conform to her neighbors’ expected behaviors - through her house, her lack of participation in school events, and the like - not only cause hilarious scenes but also hint at the devastation wrought to her self-esteem after her last architectural project went so horribly wrong. Bee’s unwavering faith in her mother’s awesomeness gives hope that Bernadette will rise from her despair and become the brilliant artist she is. The entire story is at once funny, maddening, charming, and hopeful, and it is no wonder why Where'd You Go, Bernadette has garnered the acclaim it has.
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