***MILD SPOILERS AHEAD***
OMG! What did I just read! Was it humor? Was it drama? Was it coming of age (for a middle-aged woman)? Or was it all of the above? I don’t know. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is a book that I am unable to put into any genre simply because it is Pandora’s box in all eventuality. Just like the curses flew out of the box when opened by a curious owner, this book too opens up once you are deep inside, and it leaves you surprised at each turn.
Bee Branch is not really Bee, she is actually Balakrishna Branch, a name that she was given because of the blue tint that she had as a newborn, which was a result of a heart condition. So just like that, she became her mother Bernadette’s, Bala Krishna. Several surgeries and 15 years later, Bee is wondering where her mom has disappeared to. You see, nobody has seen that genius, MacArthur grant-winning architect Bernadette since the last couple of weeks.
Bee was excited to finally be able to get her dream wish granted, the cruise to Antarctica with her parents. While Bee prepared to go on her life’s greatest adventure, her dad Elgin Branch wrapped up his work at the MS office (pun intended, LOL) and her mom, well, she spiraled out of control. From harboring hateful tendencies towards her neighbor over her yard and blueberry bushes to almost abetting a mudslide over a room full of kindergartens, from picking up unnecessary and borderline psychotic fights with everyone to let nature go wild in her house, she has done, nah, does it all. And what happens when confronted? Runaway bunny.
Before proceeding any further, I must admit that it took me several attempts to finally settle and begin to like it. I did so at all phases of my reading graph, when I was super high with reading books back to back, when I was in the dumps, and just looking at books made me feel exhausted, and when I was trying to recover from everything in between. But no, nada, nothing helped me gain interest in this book except for the sheer shamefacedness of it lying on my side table for more than 4 months now. So, I picked it up yesterday and put it down only when I had read the last page. Phew!
Written in an epistolary way, 3/4s of the story is documented in emails, handwritten notes, letters, announcements, messages, and that kind of stuff. Although lucid, the writing does take time to get used to because it just begins, like someone has thrown in the lives of others in your face and has asked you to make sense. But once you settle, it flows. We are introduced to Bee and her quirky mom, let’s just call her Big B, and wherever Big B goes, chaos follows. What I could make of Bee is that she is a gentle and caring teenager, very unlike the regular ones who tend to slash back at parents at this age. She is an eager, curious, and intelligent child, much like her overachieving parents. Big B, however, is not much of a role model to her model child. Hers is the character with multiple layers, which our Bee peels delicately when she disappears. Their relationship is beautiful, much like someone who can’t breathe without each other being present in their lives. More than her husband, Big B shares her partnership with Bee. No, don’t get me wrong here, Elgin and Big B do share something which is way beyond explanation, they are more of soulmates than life partners, but for Bee, Big B seems to have given up everything she worked for, literally.
There aren’t too many characters that remain in memory except the protagonist and the supporting cast, and whom I can count down on one hand. Bee, Big B, Audrey, Soo-Lin, and Elgin, and the relationship between all of them is as twisted and real as it can get (though one hardly sees any actual relationship out there) and that IMO, is the biggest selling factor in this borderline psychotic book. Relatable characters. Relatable actions. Relatable reactions. More humane than humans themselves. Ego, anger, love, hate, despair, craziness, opportunism, infidelity, sorrow, enlightenment, the story has it all. More than anything what struck a chord with me was the underlying, undetected mental health issues. A sick child might bring an overwhelmingly busy man and a lost woman together, and keep them together but they aren’t necessarily the best family, or hell, they aren’t even a decently functional family!
What this book brings out is that the mind works in ways no one can fathom and it doesn’t always get detected. Well, most people choose to ignore eccentric/strange behavior as quirks, and that is how we were brought up! And we are way past to keep pretending. I wouldn’t call this book one of a kind or a must-read, but it is definitely something, something that you can give a shot to.