I love everything about summer: the heat, the humidity, the iced tea, the air-conditioning, the iced tea, and did I say the iced tea?
My mother had strong views about summer. She believed drinking unsweetened iced tea with lemon had “health benefits.” She liked to chat about the antioxidants in tea. She also believed women over 30 should never wear shorts. After menopause, I disappeared as a woman anyway. I am “beyond gender,” as I say. So I wore shorts on my bike ride to the bookstore (I do wish I had culottes) to buy a copy of Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize.
It was a lovely ride, but very hot.
Naturally I found lots of books, but not the one I was looking for.
Well, there’s always the e-book.
Since I had the urge to read a Bailey Women’s Prize-related book, I went home and started Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which made the longlist last year
It is feather-light and charming, in the manner of Nina Stibbe’s Man at the Helm. Comedies seldom make the prize longlists, and, 100 pages into it, this has the lightness of a successful Y.A. crossover novel. The narrator, Bee, tells us on the first page that her mother Bernadette disappeared before their Christmas vacation to Antarctica (a reward for Bee’s straight A’s in eighth grade). Bee’s narrative is mixed with emails (several from a psychotic neighbor), school reports, letters from the school, her father’s letter to a psychiatrist about Bernadette, and most touchingly, Bernadette’s lonely, personal emails to an administrative assistant she hires through a large company in India to pay her bills and shop for her.
Bernadette may or may not be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. When Microsoft bought her husband’s computer animation company, he was ambivalent about moving to Seattle: it was Bernadette, an award-winning architect, who insisted that they leave L.A. We learn from her husband that in 18 years Bernadette hasn’t made a friend. (From the emails of the other moms at school, we see why.) Their house, a former reform school, is going to seed in a very Gothic way: not only does the roof leak, but plants actually grow up through the floor.
But Bernadette is a good mother, and is extremely solicitous about Bee, who had three open heart surgeries before kindergarten and has asthma.
Bernadette doesn’t want to leave the house, but she feels she has to go to Antarctica, which is Bee’s dream. Bernadette writes to her assistant,
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 out 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 Elgie and I and the next ten kids combined. Plus she’s applying to boarding school for next fall, which she’ll of course get into because of said A’s….So it would be in pretty bad taste to deny Buzzy this.
Is Bernadette having a breakdown? Or is it something deeper?
This feels very much like Summer Reading. Like Nick Hornby, Semple has written for films (well, in her case, TV) and I wonder if that affects the brevity of the narrative and the voice.
Still, I am happy to read a collection of emails. They are, by the way, much longer than the typical email.