Friday, March 1, 2013

Disappearing Genius and Suburban Warfare

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
(Little, Brown & Company, 2012)
Format: audio download via library (narrated by Kathleen Wilhoite)

From Goodreads: "Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom. 
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic. 
To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world."

(Sorry, Empty Child reference - favorite Doctor Who quote of my sons & mine. Kind of a fun echo between the gas mask kid and the book cover, though, right?)

This is so readable a compilation of the source documents young Bee compiles in her efforts to find out where, exactly, her mother (the titular Bernadette) has gone. Bee's voice is on the line of naiveté, but her gradual awakening to a broader understanding of her doting, almost coddling parents is her internal journey. Her actual journey - the family trip to Antarctica that was the straw that broke Bernadette's hold on what she tried to call normalcy - is a hard-won and significant journey, as well. I loved the way Semple (via Bee) arranges all of the emails, invoices, memos, articles, and other documents to tell the Fox's story, which builds to unexpected and fun places.

It's hard to put down, it stays with you, and it has a lot to say about genius, identity, community, and family. Plus, sarcasm. Lovely, lovely sarcasm. Not that I've ever had cause to make slightly snarky comments about über-parents in the suburbs or anything. (Love you all! Thanks for all you do to make our schools shine! But you scare me some.) And the payoff between Bernadette and her self-appointed arch-enemy Audrey takes the sting out. Somewhat.

Wilhoite gives Bee a touch too much lisp and verve at times, but also the wry tone that suits the teen. I really like what she does with the adults, especially Bernadette and Audrey. Bernadette's ennui regarding her community clashes brilliantly with Audrey's self-satisfaction.

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