Bernadette Fox has disappeared. Her daughter Bee believes she’s still alive and looks for evidence about why she would leave at all. Bee’s research uncovers the nuisances and foibles of Bernadette’s daily life as she interacts with her family, the other parents aka “gnats” at her daughter’s school, and resurrected figures from her past.
Most of the main characters are female, with the exception of Elgin Branch, who we hated. The female characters, especially Bernadette and her neighbor Audrey Griffin, are complicated, loving, and fierce. These two have consciously chosen motherhood over career, but wrestle with this choice in different ways. Bernadette’s past life is revealed in a heartbreaking fashion, making her self-isolation after a public disaster almost understandable. Meanwhile, over the course of the book, Audrey’s life unravels in an often hilarious fashion, leading to her surprising empathy for Bernadette.
This book is an epistolary novel, told through emails, letters, transcripts, medical records, magazine articles and faxes as Bee pieces together the events leading up to her mother’s disappearance and searches for clues to her whereabouts. The final section is told exclusively from Bee’s perspective as she and her father travel to Antarctica. The structure of the book is engaging and the wittiness of the overall writing allows each character to feel fully developed. There is a slight disconnect between Bee’s voice in the book and her stated age of 15–most of us felt she was much younger.
The titular Bernadette Fox is an agoraphobic former architect and devoted mother who nevertheless leaves her daughter behind without any explanation (As a group, we loved Bernadette, but could not forgive this). Bee Branch, Bernadette’s daughter, has a precocious aura reminiscent of Harriet the Spy with just enough sass to keep her fresh. Bernadette’s husband Elgin is supposedly a genius, but he kind of sucks. We found his relationship with his assistant Soo-Lin puzzling. Audrey Griffin offered as much discussion as Bernadette, especially when we considered her role in Bernadette’s escape.
While Bernadette’s disappearance is the catalyst for the entire book, her actual escape isn’t described until almost three-quarters of the way through the book, during an intervention for her perceived mental illness. The deliberate reveal through the documents collected by Bee, along with Bee’s interjections, allow the audience to come to their own conclusions about Bernadette’s mental state and the events and people that may have led her to leave her family. We poured out some wasabi in collective mourning for the Twenty Mile House. Bernadette’s mothering skills came under fire at our table even as we sympathized with her feelings of being an outsider, but Bee’s protectiveness of her mother’s memory endeared both of them to us.
Is this a good discussion book?
Absolutely. Our discussion ranged from miracles to marriage to madness to maturity as we talked about the shittiness of Bernadette leaving her fifteen-year-old daughter and how our perspectives on each character changed with new information. We determined we hated Elgie, even as we questioned what the new Branch-Fox-Lee-Segal family would look like on an ordinary Wednesday. In fact, this is the most book-clubby (or booky-club, if you enjoy malapropisms or speaking like Tom Haverford) book we’ve read so far. We even went so far as to offer our casting suggestions for the upcoming movie.
Book rating: 3.9 out of 5 Bookmarks
Do you enjoy elaborately delicious sushi? Head to Wild Ginger and start with the Pineapple Cheese Wontons. Chosen because a restaurant of the same name is briefly mentioned in the book, we were content to camp out for two hours as we noshed on edamame and lotus chips and swapped pieces until we all had created delicious Franken-rolls of our various individual orders.
Our waitress was cordial and attentive, giving us a lot of time for discussion between ordering and suggesting multiple orders of our chosen starters for ease of sharing.
The restaurant is pleasant and no frills, with lots of sunlight. There was enough space that we didn’t feel squashed together but we weren’t so far apart that we couldn’t trade sushi.
Ease of discussion
Wild Ginger is deceptively large, so we were seated at a comfortable distance from other diners. In fact, as we became emphatic on certain points about the Branch-Fox method of parenting, we might have been distracting to those who weren’t as interested in the 2012 novel Elle magazine called “As intelligent and enlightening as it is charming…” Now, who’s up for a trip to Seattle?
Food rating: 4.8 out of 5 Servings