Insomnious, Misanthropic and Reclusive: Bernadette Is Us
Posted by: MaryKate Perry
Okay, maybe she’s just me.
I know by now there has been loads of press about the indomitable heroine of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette? but I just had to add my two cents because I think it’s a book group gem. Our protagonist hides out in her crumbling mansion, can’t abide Seattle, loathes volunteering and don’t even get her started on Canadians. I was predictably intrigued by her bold and hilarious anti-social behavior, which should provide voyeuristic pleasure to all but the most mentally well-adjusted. But I wasn’t expecting to also find this character so oddly endearing.
Bee is Bernadette’s sweet and worldly-wise daughter who attends a private school that prides itself on “global connectitude.” I am weary of snarky teens in literature and on screen so Bee as the insightful, sleuthing narrator, reconstructing the recent events of her mother’s unpredictable life through emails and letters, came as a charming change from the usual. An earnest teen who reveres the intrepid polar adventurer Ernest Shackleton? She had me at earnest/Ernest!
This tale winds all over the place like the ominous blackberry brambles in Bernadette’s untamed yard. It takes us (literally) to the end of the earth for a catharsis on the white continent. Suffice it to say that the story, however unconventionally told, is enough to keep a reader entertained. As a group selection I think it could offer some levity for readers who are fatigued with venerable tomes of improving literature. On the one hand I would say this isn’t a book for “serious readers,” on the other hand I would prescribe it to all of them as a medicinal diversion, like a trip to the seaside.
This book gives Seattle-ites a chance to scoff at their dysfunctional relationship with the weather, coffee, and Microsoft, while still – thanks to Semple’s ability to be cutting without drawing blood – secretly clinging to them as hallmarks of identity. Why not have your cake and eat it too? Bernadette hangs by a thread and pushes the limits of believability, as does her unhinged neighbor Audrey, who is perpetually battling against Bernadette’s blackberry vines in all their thorny symbolism. But Bernadette emerges as a gritty character, fragile and endangered like the polar ice Bee longs to visit but diamond hard and awe-inspiring as well.
If the Antarctic aspect interests your group then consider diving into Alfred Lansing’s Endurance, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s South or for teens, Geraldine McCaughrean’s creepy and tense novel, The White Darkness. Another book group pick with a bold and brilliant teen protagonist (and a mystery as well) is a favorite of mine for teens or adults: E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.