Epistolary books are simply not my cup of tea. However the wacky, satirical characters which inhabit Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette are exactly to my preference. At the start, it all seemed a bit too cutesy, I couldn’t understand how I was going to become interested and invested in these characters. But, about 50 pages in, I was hooked.
So much so it seemed to me that Bernadette Fox, her husband Elgin Branch and their daughter Bee were written with me, and people like me, in mind. Bee is exceptional is almost every way and excels in school. Bee is scholastically successful to the point that her parents have to keep their promise of a trip to Antarctica for a perfect middle school record. It is the time around planning this trip that Bernadette takes off.
The book is structured as Bee’s study of her mother’s disappearance, piecing together the events using email messages, official documents, secret correspondence (and faxes!) to piece together the narrative. Bee’s voice links the various epistles together. And truly, without Bee these pieces of information would not give the reader as much to hook into. Initially I couldn’t divorce myself from the idea that Bee wouldn’t have access to any of these sources but Semple writes herself out of that conundrum pretty well, but it is left until late in the novel. The novel also switches form in the latter sections, leaving behind the epistolary format and instead leaving the reader with a highly distraught Bee.
Where the novel falls down for me is that Semple chose Bernadette to be the star of this story. The reader is supposed to identify with and root for Bernadette and all the wacky choices she’s made and the life she is living. As much as I did identify with and root for Bernadette, it was Bee that I was more intensely tied to. I wanted the story to be more about Bee and less about Bernadette. The story is summarized as being Bee’s search for her mom, but it’s not. It’s the documenting of a life out of control and the magical realism way in which that life is brought back under control. And I say this while falling a little in love with the book as it is.
Particularly because it uses the word troglodyte.