Where’d You Go Bernadette?
By Maria Semple
Bernadette Fox is a MacArthur Grant winning architect first, a mother to a 15 year-old daughter, and a wife I guess. This was one of those books that really just hit me at exactly the right time. I picked this book up because a patron recommended it to me and I had also seen the trailer for the movie. I found myself completely engrossed in the character’s little domestic squabbles because it was so funny. It also probably helps that I too fantasize about buying a quirky old house and then disappearing into a thicket of blackberries.
Bernadette’s daughter Bee has earned herself the reward of her choice because she’s been pulling in top notch grades and she decides she would like for the whole family to take a trip to Antarctica and as the title suggests, Bernadette vanishes before the family finishes zipping their parkas into their luggage. This is primarily because her husband, Elgin Branch, is seeking involuntary commitment because she has just gone far too cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs for his liking.
This novel is written in an epistolary style (mostly in the form of emails) and I think that lends itself well to the content. The characters are so self-involved and ridiculous that it is a delight to watch them muddle their lives in such style. It was a very quick read and some marvelous hijinks ensue, but what I really wanted to delve into was the way that Semple portrays the struggles that Bernadette faces as a woman in a male-dominated field. Her one and only completed project, the Twenty Mile House, was a residence that she built using recycled and locally sourced materials before eco-consciousness was even a thing. When her house is purchased by wasteful male architect that she had some battles with over discarded fixtures, she decides she would rather destroy her noteworthy creation rather than see it in the hands of a gnat.
All creators have been known to have artistic hissy fits from time to time, but Bernadette Fox takes this to the extreme and develops agoraphobia and what many around her consider an obstinate and abrasive personality. She’s essentially a female Howard Roark, but instead of being praised for her genius she’s branded antisocial and therefore a target for everyone in her community. Truly Bernadette’s major fault is that she demands excellence from everyone around her and most people to not measure up to her standards. As Whitney Cummings put it, “For a girl to get called crazy, we just have to send you two text messages in a row.” – Katie