I heard Maria Semple on Fresh Air with Terri Gross talking about her newest novel, Today Will Be Different. I downloaded it on Audible and created reasons to listen until I reached the end. I loved Semple’s direct but sarcastic voice. I remember hearing buzz about Where’d You Go, Bernadette when it was first published, but I wasn’t motivated to add it to my wish list until I listened to Today Will Be Different.
Where’d You Go Bernadette was different in format. It’s told as a dossier of documents interspersed with narrative. Near the end of the novel Semple reveals that this dossier was assembled by Bernadette’s daughter, which is another narrative trick of the novel, to slowly release information that allows the reader to make sense of this disparate pieces put in front of him or her.
Bernadette is a middle-aged mother of one teenaged-daughter, who is finishing her last year of school in the states before heading to England for boarding school. Bee, we learn, was born with serious health issues following a series of miscarriages. Bee’s father is a programming genius who works at Microsoft, which is what brought the family to Seattle, a place Bernadette despises. The family lives in an old girls’ school that is slowly returning to nature, complete with holes in the roof and moldering floor boards. Even before she disappears, the reader can tell something is not right with Bernadette. She spends her days in a travel trailer in their yard, where she writes highly personal emails to her virtual assistant, whom she’s hired against her husband’s wishes.
Bernadette is unhappy. Her husband is absorbed by his work and disconnected from his family. Bee is trying to hold the family in balance and has pinned a great deal of hope on a trip to Antarctica, a reward for a great report card, and a cause of serious anxiety for her mother, who seems to suffer from some measure of agoraphobia or social anxiety or both.
Most of us can connect to Bernadette through her fear of failure–in her career, her ability to become a mother, her ability to make friends, and her ability to hold her family together. Fear and anxiety send Bernadette to her trailer, to disconnect, making her failures more and more likely. While we may not all have a trailer retreat in the back yard and a virtual assistant to whom we can confide our darkest secrets, many of us can likely identify with Bernadette’s fears and her impulse to flee entanglements in order to protect herself from facing them.
I did not enjoy Semple’s first novel as much as her second, but I’ll take that as a positive sign and look forward to her third.