Get it? 'Cause the title of the book is Where'd You Go, Bernadette? (By Maria Semple, just to sneak that useful information in there.)
Poor Bee; her mother has disappeared. The novel is composed of a collection of documents--mostly emails and letters from Bee's school, from Bernadette to her new personal assistant in India, from her neighbor to the blackberry abatement specialist. The portrait that emerges is an unflattering one of a brittle and neurotic Bernadette. The other players don't fare much better, from the overearnest parents at the school to the absolutely nutballs neighbor/parent who hates her.
The first time I picked the book up, I put it down after 30 pages. I hated pretty much all the characters, and I was pretty sure the author hated them, too, and wanted me to laugh at them with her. They were all just so sad, though, I stopped reading.
But when I read it for book club, my opinion changed. I loved this book, and Maria Semple loved her characters. She saw how they screwed up, but she also saw how much screwing up doesn't make you a bad person, even when you do it repeatedly and over a long period of time. You could say the big message here is that it's never too late, and my word do I like hearing that sometimes.
Unfortunately, this book being so all-around enjoyable meant that our discussion at book club was not as spirited as usual. It's also not as rich in questions for future book clubbers in need of a reader's guide. (By the way, there was a reader's guide in the back of my copy. I was not terribly impressed.)
Anyway, here's what we thought was worth talking about.
1) Answer the title question. At the point in the middle of the narrative where (is this a spoiler?) an actual disappearance takes place, what zany ideas did you come up with? I had a whole bunch, and they're really cool, but they're very spoiley, and I'm not sure how to keep spoilers from showing up in an RSS reader, so I will put those theories in a paragraph at the very end of the review. That's where the spoilers live.
2) Talk to me about religion. How did religion fit in with Audrey's character arc? With Bee's? Were there undercurrents besides the obvious "religious" things, or did the religion thing seem tacked on? By the characters (tacked onto their lives) or by the author (tacked onto the story)?
3) What do you see going on with gender relations in this book? There are some really interesting subquestions and ways to look at things here--Elgie's vs. Bernadette's roles in their marriage vs. the expectations of those roles; Elgie as kind of the token man in the story overall; Bernadette's career and subsequent collapse are all very "feminine" in both cool and not-cool ways.
4) Talk about mothers. Bernadette's relationship with Bee, Bernadette's history with trying to get pregnant, the other mothers at the school and their relations to each other, other kids' reactions to Bernadette, Audrey as a mom, Soo-Lin as a parent. Is Bernadette a good mother? Is she a better mother than she might appear to be? Appear to whom? And hey, what about Elgie--is he a good father?
5) There's a really cool conversation to be had if anyone reading this book knows anything about: Seattle; intense, participatory schools for crunchy, high-achieving families; working at big, exciting, cult-like organizations. 5b) If you read this and Mr. Penumbra, compare the latter's depictions of Google with Bernadette's depictions of Microsoft.
Okay, that's all the questions. Now the next paragraph has my spoilers of Theories I Had In the Middle of the Book about Were Bernadette Actually Was. Don't read it if you haven't read the book!
I thought she might be: hiding out in the desert with Audrey; trading identities with Audrey and hiding out in the desert answering Soo-Lin's emails; down in Los Angeles wreaking vengeance on the reality TV dude who ruined her house; building a new house somewhere weirdly under their noses in Seattle; building a house in Antarctica.
Was I right? Well, read the book!