(Audio)Book Talk: *Where’d You Go, Bernadette* by Maria Semple

cover image: WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE via indiebound.org
Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel
Maria Semple (Facebook)
Audiobook read by Kathleen Wilhoite
Little, Brown and Company (August 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0316204277 / 9780316204279)
Fiction, 336 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Hachette Audio; Audible ASIN B008XDY8GS)
Reason for reading: Personal

Opening lines: “The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, ‘What’s most 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’s 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.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle–and people in general–has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence–creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.

Comments: I wasn’t thoroughly enamored of Maria Semple’s debut novel, This One is Mine, but I liked it enough to feel inclined to watch for what she’d do next. While waiting for that to come along, I also checked out some of the work she’d done in her earlier career as a television writer–namely the entire series run of Arrested Development on Netflix–and became even more alert for something new from her. It came along this summer, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette has landed on several “best-of-2012” book lists.

Cleverly structured as a modern-day epistolary novel–almost more of a scrapbook, comprised largely of letters and e-mails between characters–…Bernadette represents the efforts of the title character’s teenage daughter, Bee, to reconstruct just what was going on during the weeks preceding her disappearance from her own home during an attempted mental-health intervention, and what’s become of her since. As she tries to piece the story together, Bee learns about her mother’s past as a visionary architect…and why she not only hasn’t designed a single thing in nearly twenty years, she has become increasingly less interested in leaving their tumbledown Seattle home, and it so often goes wrong when she does. However, Bernadette’s most recent solution to that problem–contracting her family’s personal errands to an online virtual assistant in India –turned out the be less ideal than it seemed.

The novel’s framework allows Semple to give voice to a large cast of characters and follow them through their interactions with one another; the text-communication device also permits exposition that feels more organic to the story. The strongest and most present voice is Bee’s as she knits the pieces together and reflects on her close relationship with her offbeat but loving mother; but despite appearing in the story only through her own correspondence, Bernadette is also remarkably vivid.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a smartly comic novel, and its humor frequently goes in unpredictable directions. I already knew that Semple was adept at satire, but didn’t entirely expect the degree of humanity she gives to most of her characters here. I’d had high hopes for This One is Mine and they weren’t quite realized; I didn’t quite know what I should expect from Semple’s second novel, and was pleasantly surprised and satisfied by what I found there. The surprise was even more pleasant because I’d somehow missed the memo about the novel’s structure, and decided to read it by ear. You probably wouldn’t think a novel built on correspondence could work well as an audiobook, but it really does.

I couldn’t find other audiobook credits for narrator Kathleen Wilhoite, but she’s an actor/singer/songwriter whose lengthy IMDb filmography includes a recurring role on the TV series Mad About You, where Maria Semple was a writer. (That’s an interesting bit of connection trivia…that may mean absolutely nothing.) It’s always clear which characters Wilhoite is voicing, and she’s notably effective and endearing as fifteen-year-old Bee.

It’s also clear why this novel has been getting so much praise, and why I’ll keep watching to see what Maria Semple does next.

Rating: Book 4/5, Audio 3.75/5
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