Author: Maria Semple
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group (2012)
Genre: Contemporary, domestic fiction
“Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle – and people in general – has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.” – Goodreads blurb
From the outset, ‘Bernadette’ took a difficult concept (a missing mother, a worried daughter) and kept the tone an uplifting one. Bee’s determination and can-do attitude was central to that, as was her assertion on the first page that “Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.”
I admired the way that Semple was able to create such a strong sense of all the characters and the plot, even though the first half of the book (more – maybe the first three quarters) was told almost entirely through letters/emails. Having said that, I found it easier to read the last part, which was in Bee’s point of view.
The strongest message that I took from this book (which is one that I think every person with mental illness needs to hear) came through most strongly in the final line, the end of Bernadette’s letter to her daughter: “And know I’m always, Mom.”
To her daughter, Bernadette was first and foremost a mother, a loving and devoted mum. Her illness did not change or diminish that in the slightest. Bernadette is a much-needed example of how one can simultaneously be a good parent and have a mental illness. They’re not mutually exclusive concepts.
It also highlighted how even the most loving parent’s mental health challenges can – and do – impact their children. For example, Bee was careful with what she told her mother and chose not to tell her about the dance performance she was choreographing because she “knew [mum] didn’t like coming to school, and probably wouldn’t.”
Bernadette was open with Bee about how she felt in her letter, and she acknowledged how difficult it must have been for Bee, as “hostage to [my] careening moods.” It’s moments of honesty and communication like this which are integral to the creation and maintenance of healthy relationships, especially in situations like theirs, and Maria Semple did a great job of exploring the bond between Bernadette and her daughter.
My favourite scene was when Bee and Bernadette were singing along to the Beatles in the car. Bee observed that “it was like when mum sang, she was full of hope,” and then Bernadette started to open up to her about her experiences. The contrast between the joy of singing along to the music and the challenges Bernadette faced were so relatable, especially when she told Bee that she was trying, but “sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
I disliked how Elgin became so angry with Bernadette at the height of her difficulties, although it’s a highly understandable reaction. He clearly loved her and wanted what was best for her, and felt helpless in his inability to address her fears and increasingly erratic behaviour.
For all its sometimes heavy content matter, there were times I found myself smiling – even laughing – to myself as I read.
I only just discovered that this is being made into a movie and is due to be released next year. Needless to say, I’m very eager to see it!
This is a light read, enjoyable, but not one I’d use for peer/group work. However, it is enormously valuable. If you want to understand what it’s like to be in the mind of someone with a mental illness, or the child of someone who has one, but you don’t want to read anything too heavy, than I cannot stress enough how helpful you’d find this book. Aside from what it has to offer on the subject of mental illness, it’s highly entertaining. If you’ve not read it yet, be sure to read it before the movie comes out!