This summer, I’ve been catching up on past Tournament of Books contenders that readers in the Goodreads group selected as favorites but that I hadn’t gotten around to reading. One of these is Where’d You Go, Bernadette? which seemed to be everywhere in 2012. It’s the story of the brilliant outsider architect Bernadette Fox, who moved to Seattle with her family and disappeared from the architectural scene to become a mom (and, if her neighbors and fellow moms are to be believed, a menace).
The story is mostly told through emails and documents collected by Bernadette’s teenage daughter, Bee. Together, these documents paint a picture of an extremely unpleasant community of very rich people who care too much about their reputations and about what other people are up to and show little self-awareness or empathy. And that includes Bernadette, who appears to be wrongly hated by the community, but also appears entirely wrapped up in herself. It becomes clear that a lot of what’s going on with Bernadette has to do with undiagnosed mental illness, which is deserving of compassion, but she also seems like she was unpleasant to be around when she was more functional.
I almost gave up on the book halfway through because I was so thoroughly fed up with every single person in it, except for Bee, who I didn’t object to, but who also didn’t have much personality beyond being smart. I don’t necessarily need to like fictional characters to enjoy books about them, but there has to be something pleasant for me to hang onto. In this case, it was the epistolary format and the fact that I couldn’t figure out precisely where this train wreck of a community was heading that kept me reading. I was interested.
It turns out that as the book goes on, some of the characters develop a little more self-awareness. And the book continues to take some unexpected turns. The plot gets bigger and sillier, even as its treatment of the characters’ struggles becomes more sensitive. The unpleasantness fell away, and only the things I liked were left.
This is the kind of book that I’m unlikely to ever consider a favorite. I’m just not so easily attached to big goofy contemporary stories about broadly drawn characters. If I’d read it in 2012, I might have rolled my eyes at the hype. But now I’m able to see it as an enjoyable enough book to spend a few days with.