" I tore through this book with heedless pleasure." - Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom
Bernadette Fox has vanished.
When her daughter Bee claims a family trip to Antarctica as a reward for perfect grades, Bernadette, a fiercely intelligent shut-in, throws herself into preparations for the trip. But worn down by years of trying to live the Seattle life she never wanted, Ms. Fox is on the brink of a meltdown. And after a school fundraiser goes disastrously awry at her hands, she disappears, leaving her family to pick up the pieces.
Which is exactly what Bee does, weaving together an elaborate web of emails, invoices, and school memos that reveals a secret past Bernadette has been hiding for decades. Where'd You Go Bernadette is an ingenious and unabashedly entertaining novel about a family coming to terms with who they are, and the power of a daughter's love for her mother.
Maria Semple is the author of This One Is Mine and Today Will Be Different. Before turning to fiction, she wrote for Mad About You, Ellen, and Arrested Development. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker. She lives in Seattle.
Read an Excerpt
The first annoying thing is how, anytime I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, "The most important thing is for you to understand it's not your fault." You'll notice that wasn't even the question. When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, "The truth is complicated. There's no way anyone can ever completely know everything about another person."
Mom disappears into thin air two days before Christmas without telling me? Of course it's complicated. Just because it's complicated, just because you think you can't ever know another person completely, it doesn't mean you can't try.
It doesn't mean I can't try.
PART ONE: MOM VERSUS THE GNATS
Monday, November 15
* * *
Galer Street School is where compassion, academics and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet.
Working towards Excellence
Bee is a pure delight. Her love of learning is infectious, as are her kindness and humor. Bee is unafraid to ask questions. Her goal is always deep understanding of any given topic, not merely getting a good grade. The other students look to Bee for help in their studies, and she is always quick to respond with a smile. Bee exhibits extraordinary concentration when working alone; when working in a group, she is a quiet and confident leader. Of special note is what an accomplished flutist Bee continues to be. The year is only a third over, but already I am mourning the day Bee graduates from Galer Street and heads out into the world. I understand she is applying to boarding schools back East. I envy the teachers who get to meet Bee for the first time, and to discover for themselves what a lovely young woman she is.
* * *
That night at dinner, I sat through Mom and Dad's "We're-so-proud-of-you's," and "She's-a-smart-one's," until there was a lull.
"You know what it means," I said. "The big thing it means."
Mom and Dad frowned question marks at each other.
"You don't remember?" I said. "You told me when I started Galer Street that if I got perfect grades the whole way through, I could have anything I wanted for a graduation present."
"I do remember," Mom said. "It was to ward off further talk of a pony."
"That's what I wanted when I was little," I said. "But now, I want something different. Do you want to know what it is?"
"I'm not sure," Dad said. "Do we?"
"A family trip to Antarctica!" I pulled out the brochure I'd been sitting on. It was from an adventure travel company that does cruises to exotic places. I opened it to the Antarctica page and passed it across the table. "If we go, it has to be over Christmas."
"This Christmas?" Mom said. "Like in a month?" She got up and started stuffing empty take-out containers into the bags they were delivered in.
Dad was already devouring the brochure. "It's their summer," he said. "It's the only time you can go."
"Because ponies are cute." Mom tied the handles in a knot and stuffed the bags in the trash.
"What do you say?" Dad looked up at Mom.
"Isn't this a bad time for you because of work?"
"We're studying Antarctica," I said. "I've read all the explorer's journals and I'm doing my presentation on Shackleton." I started wiggling in my chair. "I can't believe it. Neither of you are saying no."
"I was waiting for you," Dad said to Mom. "You hate to travel."
"I was waiting for you," Mom said to Dad. "You have to work."
"Oh my God. That's yes!" I jumped out of my chair. "That's a yes!" My joy was so infectious that Ice Cream woke up and started barking and doing victory laps around the kitchen table.
"Is that a yes?" Dad asked Mom. "That's a yes," Mom said.
* * *
Tuesday, November 16 From: Bernadette Fox To: Manjula Kapoor
Manjula, Something unexpected has come up and I'd love it if you could work extra hours. From my end, this trial period has been a lifesaver. I hope it's working for you, too. If so, please let me know ASAP because I need you to work your Indian magic on a huge project.
OK: I'll stop being coy.
You know I have a daughter, Bee. (She's the one you order the medicine for and wage valiant battle with the insurance company over.) Apparently, my husband and I told her she could have anything she wanted if she graduated middle school with straight-A's. The straight A's have arrived or should I say straight S's, because Galer Street is one of those liberal, grades-erode-self-esteem type schools (let's hope you don't have them in India) and so what does Bee want? To take a family trip to Antarctica!
Of the million reasons I don't want to go to Antarctica, the main one is that it will require me to leave the house. You might have figured by now that's something I don't much like to do. But I can't argue with Bee. She's a good kid. She has more character than me and Elgie and the next ten guys combined. Plus she's applying to boarding school for next fall, which she'll of course get into because of said A's. Whoops, S's! So, it would be in pretty bad taste to deny Buzzy this.
The only way to get to Antarctica is by cruise ship. Even the smallest one has 150 passengers, which translates into me being trapped with 150 people who will uniquely annoy the hell out of me with their rudeness, waste, idiotic questions, incessant yammering, creepy food requests, boring small-talk, etc. Or worse, they turn their curiosity towards me, and expect pleasantry in return. I'm getting a panic attack just thinking about it. A little social anxiety never hurt anyone, am I right? 30.00 USD Invoice Due in Full Upon Receipt
A Conversation with Maria Semple Where'd You Go, Bernadette is narrated by a fifteen-year-old and contains letters, doctors' reports, blog posts, and magazine articles. How did you come up with this unusual form? My idea for the book began with Bernadette, a brilliant but unhinged woman who devotes herself to motherhood and whose unchanneled artistic energy is wreaking serious havoc in her life. Since she's the type who likes to boss people around, it seemed plausible and funny to me that she would overshare with the help. But as Bernadette is so crippled by social anxiety that she's borderline agoraphobic, I decided to make this help virtual. As soon as I began typing that first email from Bernadette to her virtual assistant in India, it came to me in a flash: I'm writing an epistolary novel! This filled me with excitement, as two of my favorite books of all time, Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos and English Passengers by Matthew Kneale, are epistolary novels. (There's something deliciously illicit about reading letters that aren't intended for you, isn't there?) I love the form and decided to just go crazy with it. You wrote for TV shows like Arrested Development, Mad About You, and Ellen before turning to fiction. How did your career as a TV writer inform Where'd You Go, Bernadette? To me, what makes a great novel is a great story. In TV, story is king. I feel wildly lucky to have spent so much of my life in rooms with writers much better than myself, learning to craft a story. You must have also learned a lot about comedy. I learned that comedy is born out of strong characters. I won't begin writing a character until I have a clear take on them. At first, the take can be rather crude. For example, Audrey is religious, cheap, and easily offended. Soo-Lin is provincial, boring, and overly invested in the intrigue at Microsoft. And then, of course, the characters fill out in ways I don't expect. Audrey would become a master gardener and the mother of a juvie. Soo-Lin would end up having a blind father and would lean heavily on a loopy support group, Victims Against Victimhood. If you've got a strong, specific character, the comedy will unfurl. You mentioned Microsoft. Where'd You Go, Bernadette is full of precise details about the work environment there, plus a wide range of other subjects like the TED conference, Antarctica, the Los Angeles architecture scene of the '90s, private-school fundraising, brain-computer interface, and the logistics of getting someone institutionalized, to name a few. How much research did you do? Not as much as it might seem! My talent isn't so much in traditional research as in finding really smart people and badgering them with questions. For example, I'd already decided that Elgie would work at Microsoft and that Soo-Lin would be his admin. Around that time, we went to the ballet and I started a conversation with a guy sitting next to me who, turns out, was a big-time engineer at Microsoft. He was incredibly friendly, so I asked him if I could come out to Microsoft for a visit. (I'd never been.) Two days later, he was walking me around the campus. Almost everything in Where'd You Go, Bernadette about Microsoft came from that one visit. Plus, this same VP read several drafts of the book and corrected all my terminology. Don't worry, he's thanked in the acknowledgments! That anecdote paints an idyllic picture of your life in Seattle. But it would seem from the book that you don't much care for the place. We moved to Seattle about four years ago. At first, I couldn't stand it. I didn't like the people; I couldn't find my way around the irrational street grid; the architecture was ugly; even the native plants seemed weird and unattractive. But Seattle's worst offense, in my dark mind, was that since moving there, I'd been unable to write. Luckily, I recognized a glimmer of comedy in my misery and out sprang the character of Bernadette. I began the book immediately and included all the well-crafted rants about Seattle that were stuck in my head. (Nobody wanted to hear it, and who could blame them?) By the time I was halfway through the book, I had started warming to Seattle. But I fended off any fuzzy thoughts until I finished my first draft. Now I thoroughly love Seattle. Who have you discovered lately? It makes me so happy to answer this, because the best books I've read all year were recommended to me by one of my favorite bookstore people, Debbie Boxer at Barnes & Noble in Seattle. We talk books, and one day I came in to buy At Last by Edward St. Aubyn, which a friend had recommended. Debbie mentioned that it was the fifth book in a series, and she went and found a paperback omnibus of the first four of St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk. I read them in a weekend. They're riotously funny. St. Aubyn writes sentences that are so beautiful it almost hurts to read them. And his dialogue is the best I've ever come across. I can't recommend these books enough. Oh, and on a final note, it was a high point of my career as an author the day I was able to go into the Barnes & Noble in Seattle and tell Debbie that Where'd You Go, Bernadette was a B&N Discover pick.
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