I have often thought that Bernadette is a good name as it comes across strong and feminine. I recently met a French woman by the name of Bernadette and that has prompted me to refresh my memory about Maria Semple‘s second novel. I read Where’d you go Bernadette several years ago when it was first published.
In Where’d you go Bernadette, a novel by Maria Semple, Bernadett Fox, a talented architect has disappeared. After giving birth, she becomes a stay home mother and wife to Elgie Branch who is working on creating a robotic virtual assistant at Microsoft Research. Bernadett is agoraphobic and she feels misplaced amongst the private school mothers. She is reliant on a virtual personal assistant in New Delhi to organise her errands. When she disappears on the eve of their family trip to Antarctica, her daughter, Bee Branch, a smart and articulate fifteen year old, goes searching for her based on a series of letters and emails that are strung together by her. She has to unearth what and where her mother has been. In the school that Bee attends in Seattle, S stands for “Surpasses Excellence” and A for “Achieves Excellence”. Since A is for “Achieves Excellence” so every kid is some kind of excellence. But Bee is a straight- S student.
Here is a snippet of what Elgie tells Bee.
“Have you heard that the brain is a discounting mechanism?” He then explained to the daughter, “ Let’s say you get a present and open it and it’s a fabulous diamond necklace. Initially, you are delirious with happiness, jumping up and down, you are so excited. The next day, the necklace still makes you happy, but less so. After a year, you see the necklace, and you think, Oh, that old thing. It’s the same for negative emotions. Lets’ say you get a crack in windshield and you are really upset. Oh no, my windshield, it ‘s ruined, I can hardly see out of it, this is a tragedy! But you don’t have enough money to fix it , so you drive with it. In a month, someone asks you what happened to your windshield, and you say, What do you mean? Because you brain has discounted it.”
The daughter said, “ The first time I walked into Kennedy’s house, ‘ I said, “ it had that horrible Kennedy-house smell because her mother is always frying fish. I asked Kennedy, What ‘s that gross smell? And she was, like, What smell?”
“Exactly” Dad said. “ You know why your brain does that?”
“It’s for survival. You need to be prepared for novel experiences because often they signal danger. If you live in a jungle full of fragrant flowers, you have to stop being so overwhelmed by the lovely smell because otherwise you couldn’t smell a predator. That’s why your brain is considered a discounting mechanism. It’s literally a matter of survival.’
Where’d you go Bernadette is about a woman trying to find her place in the modern world and it is a heartwarming satire that is hilarious and quirky. It is also a funny story about motherhood which is emotionally draining, consuming and frustrating but ultimately a wonderful experience.
The story is far out and outlandish. I understand there is a movie being made based on the novel and Cate Blanchett takes the role of the eccentric central character, Bernadett Fox.The novel is very much a screwball satire thus it should make a hilarious black comedy.