It’s rare that a book comes along that combines brilliant narrative and touching plot with a page-turning quality, but Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette does just that.
The book is about Bernadette Fox; an opinionated, talented and volatile wife in the eyes of her Microsoft-guru husband, and a menace as far as the other mothers at the school gates are concerned. But to the design elite, she’s a revolutionary architect and to 15-year-old Bee, she’s a mum and best friend.
As its title suggest, the plot centres round Bernadette’s disappearance. When Bee gets straight As on her report card, she claims her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. However Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle and general dislike of people means she rarely leaves the house, and a virtual assistant in India now runs even her most basic errands. Then Bernadette disappears, plunging a confused Bee into a frantic search for her complicated mother.
Author Maria Semple explains: “The book is her daughter's attempt to find out where her mother went. In the process, Bee also discovers a deeper truth about how a woman who once held so much promise veered so badly off the rails. It's a wild, funny narrative, I hope, with several surprises for the reader.”
The original and surprising narrative includes emails and letters to official documents and blogged transcripts. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013, the beautifully written Where’d You Go Bernadette is an addictive, funny and touching novel about misplaced genius and the bond between mother and daughter.
Listen to a chapter of the book below.
Author Maria Semple answers our questions.
In the novel Bernadette manages to vanish. Have you ever wanted to disappear and, if so, where would you go, Maria?
It's strange, but both of my novels are about mothers who can't cope with the demands of everyday life. So I think, yes, that must mean I really want to escape! In This one is mine (which is being published in the UK in the fall) the protagonist Violet attempts to escape her everyday troubles through a torrid love affair. In Where’d You Go Bernadette, Bernadette escapes to.... (you'll have to read the book to find out!) Luckily, I am a novelist, so my escape doesn't have to be as drastic. I just take my cup of tea over to my writing desk and I'm in whatever world I choose.
Bernadette was a celebrated architect and receives a MacArthur Genius Grant. It’s still rare to find stories about mis-understood geniuses who are women. Why do you think that is?
I can't immediately think of many books written about men who are geniuses! I don't think most novelists are foolish enough to set out to write about genius because it's a huge challenge to try to capture it convincingly. And if you don't, then you look stupid and pretentious. I relied on the help of a huge number of friends who I consider geniuses. They gave me many details about architecture, technology, etc. So hopefully I faked it well enough.
The story is told through several different formats (email, letters, official documents, blogged transcripts). Why was it important to you to structure the book this way?
My way into the book was through Bernadette. Like Bernadette, I had just moved to Seattle from LA and didn't like it at all. I had suffered some personal disappointments at the time and instead of dealing with them head-on, I blamed Seattle and its entire population I'd never met. Luckily, I recognized there was something inherently funny about this attitude, so I decided to start my book there. Because it was so personal, it made sense for me to write in the first person. However, after a dozen pages, I couldn't take another sentence of Bernadette's toxicity. If I wanted to strangle Bernadette, how could I expect a reader to get past page 10? I switched to the third person, but found that Bernadette's wild mind and charm were lost. It wasn't until I gave Bernadette a virtual PA in India that something crackled. That first email from Bernadette to Manjula, full of way-too personal information, felt hilarious to me... and just right. I've always loved the epistolary form, so I thought, Hey, wait a minute... maybe I can write the whole book in letters, documents, etc. It was loads of fun to puzzle together a narrative this way.
Where’d You Go Bernadette was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. How did you feel about this and which of the other shortlisted novels is your favourite?
I've always been crazy about Kate Atkinson and it was a huge fun to be able to get to know her a bit. I think Life after Life is her best book yet.
Watch a trailer of the video below or download an extract.