Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple
I really really enjoyed Bernadette. I thought the book was funny and thoughtful, and the characters were all just fantastic. By fantastic I mean awful, but in a fantastic way.
Bernadette is a world-famous architect who basically went into hiding for twenty years, hiding from her talent and hiding behind the walls she puts up around her, both literal and emotional. Her sole purpose when we meet her is to care for her daughter Bee, and she does it to the best of her abilities. She is clearly very flawed and suffering from some mental illnesses as well, and the other moms at her daughter's school think she is the worst. She hates them right back. Her life rapidly spirals out of control, houses are destroyed, the Russian mafia is involved, and Bernadette disappears. Bee's mission at that point is to figure out what happened to her mom, so she goes through emails, articles and other records to piece together where her mother went, and what she was running away from.
Bernadette for me was the draw of this book. I thought she was hilarious, interesting and brilliant. I also found her to be a very sympathetic character, clearly suffering in life and having lost her way, but doing the best she can to be a good mother and wife. So I was really surprised to hear how divisive this character is, as in you either love her or hate her. I couldn't believe some people didn't like her, but I guess that makes for a good book, when people get very passionate about the characters. I see how Bernadette is selfish, but I understand her impulses and I feel for her. There is a part where it is revealed that Bernadette had put up for silent auction at her daughter's school that she would design, provide all the supplies and build a treehouse for the highest bidder - a treehouse by a genius architect! Not one single person bid on this item, and my heart just broke into a million pieces. Like how you feel when someone is being mean to your kids, that's how I felt for Bernadette.
Now she is clearly suffering from several mental health issues, including agoraphobia and anxiety, and as it comes out later depression and post traumatic stress disorder. I thought that Semple dealt with these issues very nicely, with compassion as well as humour. There is a point when her husband is trying to have an intervention with a reluctant caretaker to get Bernadette some help, but the FBI is also involved and everyone is very very confused. It was hysterical but also delved into questions about how do you help someone who does not want to be helped?
I loved the style of the book - epistolary, apparently, when told through letters (and emails!). Bernadette's voice is so strong and sure of herself, and yet she lives her life hiding in a crumbling old mansion, terrified to so much as step outside. It is quite the juxtaposition and caught my attention right away. I also liked Bee's voice as our narrator and guide down Bernadette's fall from grace, as a precocious teen who at times is only too recognizable in her brattiness.
Each character is kind of awful in their own way. Bernadette's husband acts like a complete ass but you also feel for him, as he has been searching for his brilliant wife for twenty years and reached his breaking point. And Audrey the insufferable neighbour is so perfect, both as nosy pta president bitch and also as unlikely hero.
The end is kind of batsh*t crazy and yet somehow it works with the whole book. Now, I usually prefer books over movies, but I'm now even more excited to see the movie when it comes out this summer. Cate Blanchett might be the most dead-on casting possible. I think she's going to do great things with the character!
The one thing I wanted way more was talk about all the sustainable design Bernadette was into. Do places like hers exist? I want to learn more! I will be going out to google sustainable architectural design immediately, I love that stuff.