Formerly known as the Orange Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is awarded annually and ‘celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world’. We delve into the fourth of the six shortlisted novels – Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette.
A kaleidoscopic snapshot into the lives of Bernadette Fox, her husband Elgie Branch, and their gifted daughter Bee, the highly enjoyable Where’d You Go Bernadette is narrated through a series of pithy emails, letters, FBI transcripts, emergency room bills, and school reports – with Bee’s sharp musings occasionally punctuating the various correspondences. The sheer breadth and atypical nature of the media paint an apt picture of the non-conforming, dysfunctional family that reader quickly becomes acquainted with.
From the get go, we realise Bernadette Fox is a highly unusual individual. A fiercely intelligent former world-renowned architect, Bernadette moved from Los Angeles to Seattle after a ‘Huge Hideous Thing’ happened to her, and Elgie’s animation company was bought by Microsoft. Elgie (who would have to be played by Noah Taylor if there ever was a movie) is a socially awkward yet widely revered Microsoft genius. Constantly referred to as ‘that guy in socks’ he’s responsible for ‘that TED talk’.
Having bought a decrepit ‘Catholic school for wayward girls’ as her residence, Bernadette does not leave the house because of her aversion towards Canadians and her intense hatred of everything in Seattle – from the constant rain and the abundance of five-way intersections to the runaways and drug addicts.
‘Can you believe the weather?’ And you want to say, ‘Actually I can believe the weather. What I can’t believe is that I’m actually having a conversation about the weather.
Due to a fear of social interaction, Bernadette enlists an Indian virtual assistant Manjula to carry out the most mundane tasks – the rambling emails Bernadette pens to him are some of the funniest parts of the book.
You probably think, U.S/Canada, they’re interchangeable because they’re both filled with English-speaking, morbidly obese white people. Well Manjula, you couldn’t be more mistaken.
The disdain upon which Bernadette looks upon Seattle, Canadians, and the ‘Galer Street gnats’ of Bee’s school stands in stark contrast to the munificent love she harbours for Bee herself. So much so, when Bee beseeches her parents for a family trip to Antarctica as a reward for obtaining perfect grades, Bernadette consents, despite being a misanthrope with a tendency for seasickness.
With innermost thoughts that reveal poignant intimations on the world around her, Bee’s excerpts are as interesting as Bernadette’s griping.
Maybe that’s what religion is, hurling yourself off a cliff and trusting that something bigger will take care of you and carry you to the right place.
As we slowly piece together Bernadette’s past through a series of interviews and emails, the story unfolds with Elgie becoming increasingly agitated by Bernadette’s progressively ‘ungovernable’ behaviour in the lead-up to the Antarctica trip.
Following a few unexpected plot twists, culminating in Bernadette’s mysterious disappearance, the tone of the novel thereafter changes from a light-hearted tale of a dysfunctional family into something more akin to a docudrama detective-led thriller. Yet Semple never strays far from the blithe feel of the first half of her novel, as the moral idiosyncrasies of the very flawed characters are cloaked in zany wit and black humour.
Supporting characters such as the simpering Microsoft administrative assistant Soo-Lin Lee-Segal and the meddlesome neighbour Audrey Griffin are as multifaceted as the characters they prop up – each changing in leaps and bounds as the story progresses.
And regardless of how far Bernadette deviates from social norms in her interactions with her family and the world around her, we view her mostly through the eyes of the adoring and admiring Bee – whose mother is her best friend, her moral compass, and the way through which she navigates her world.
I can pinpoint that as the single happiest moment of my life, because I realised then that Mom would always have my back. It made me feel giant. I raced back down the concrete ramp, faster than I ever had before, so fast I should have fallen, but I didn’t fall, because Mom was in the world.
Incisive and sharp with its unique brand of droll self-mockery, the novel masks the darker themes of malaise that result from the domestic drudgery of suburban living, the complacency of an ailing marriage, and the depression that ensues when one loses one’s ability to create. But at its heart, Where’d You Go Bernadette is an affecting tale of the inextinguishable love between a mother and daughter that literally catapults them to the opposite end of the world as they seek out one another.