Thursday, March 18, 2021

Reading group: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Warning: plot spoil

We've been in lockdown for so long now I thought we needed cheering up, so I suggested this comic novel by Maria Semple, which I had read a while back when I was blogging the Women's Prize shortlist, and had enjoyed.

It consists of a series of emails, letters and notes from various characters, compiled by fourteen-year-old Bee and interwoven with her own narration, in an effort to make sense of the disappearance of her mother Bernadette - a somewhat kooky woman who had refused to take part in the activities of the school parent group and spurned the parochial snobbishness of the other mothers, for which she was much disliked.

As I told the group, I enjoyed the book even more this time around, as the first time I read it I had to do so in something of a hurry, and this time I was able to relish the things I really liked about it: the wit, the language - every character has their own voice, each one pitch perfect without an authorial foot put wrong - the clever structure, and the very clever way the plot is revealed. 

Most people in the group agreed, and appreciated the satirical fun the author pokes at the American middle-classes and various aspects of contemporary life. It's something of an outrageous plot, and as Ann said, the book tends towards farce. There is however a serious message, which, as Clare put it, is the difficult tension for women between their own careers and creativity and the creativity and commitment of motherhood. Only slowly does it become clear to the reader that Bernadette has been a prizewinning architect, partly because she is intially seen through the (somewhat vicious) eyes of the local mothers, and of course of Bee herself, simply as a mother, but also because her earlier role as an architect has been buried by circumstances that will gradually be revealed as the correspondence is accumulated and pieced together. One part of Bernadette's retreat is to do with the difficulties - and one devastating event - that she experienced as a woman in a male sphere, but more fundamentally it is to do with the tragedies she underwent as a mother: the loss of several babies in miscarriages for which she has suffered long-term grief, and the near-death and subsequent vulnerability of her one surviving baby, Bee, to whom she then felt she needed to devote all of her creative energy and attention. The letter describing this last is to me extremely moving, and in the middle of this very funny comedy I found myself crying. Once Bee and her father are finally armed with this truth, they set out to find Bernadette, and I'm very glad to say that the novel has the happy ending which, although people said was perhaps the Hollywood aspect of this novel, I was very much hoping for. As Clare said at the start of our meeting, Bernadette is an attractively kooky character, Bee a very likeable teenager, and their relationship touching, so I was invested in a happy ending for them. 

There was just one dissenter in our group over this novel. Mark said he found it too slight. He said he had read novels that were far more effectively biting about contemporary American society. I objected that, while the book does poke fun at several aspects of American life, that's not its only agenda, and the deeper message about creativity and motherhood is perhaps more fundamental. Everyone else agreed. Mark then complained that it wasn't clear at the end which Bernadette chose, motherhood or her own creativity, and I countered that the whole point of the book is that there shouldn't be that sort of binary choice, society should be arranged so that creative women can operate a balance between motherhood and their other creative pursuits. 

This led on to a long and intent conversation about the issue of parenthood and careers, and however slight Mark may have thought the novel, it certainly generated a lot of thought and discussion amongst us. 

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here