It begins with a statement of intent.
The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, “What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.” You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question. When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, “The truth is complicated. There’s no way one person can ever know everything about another person.”
Mom disappears into thin air two days before Christmas without telling me? Of course it’s complicated. 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.
It doesn’t mean I can’t try.
And then launches into the first document in the epistolary novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette? – Bee’s perfect report card. This perfect report card allows her to cash in on her parent’s deal and demand a trip to Antarctica. Surprised, her parents Bernadette and Elgie, agree.
More documents follow. Emails between Bernadette and her virtual assistant in India. Notes and emails to and from Aubrey, Bernadette’s contentious neighbor. Emails from Bee’s private school to the parents. Emails from Elgie to a doctor about the state of his wife’s mental health. A lengthy article on Bernadette’s former illustrious architect career.
Epistolary novels show the limits of how we know someone. How easy it is to misinterpret someone’s email or text. How one picture of a person is drawn by how they interact with a friend and a different person emerges with an enemy. Shifting through the documents allows the mystery of each character, as well as the story, to unfold by forcing a limited perspective on each character. We learn about them as they present themselves to different audiences – friends, colleagues, the school administrators. The perspective expands with each additional document but is very easy to see how each character misinterprets another through these documents. They think they know the person and have generated a distinct picture of that person in their mind. Yet there is always something else – another document, another person’s perspective – that constantly shifts the sands.
The only exception is Bee. There are no documents to or from Bee. Instead, her first person commentary is interspersed between various documents, often clarifying an event that she was at. Early on I wondered how Bee had access to the documents. Sure, she could have hacked her mom’s email and gotten those documents but the neighbor’s emails and later, strangely, faxes? This is eventually answered but the mystery, one of many, carries through the book.
One of the main things I took away from Bee’s comments was her love and respect for her mom. None of the other views of Bernadette are positive, even the one presented by Bernadette in her lengthy emails to her virtual assistant. Having Bee’s stories about her mother’s support or a moment they shared kept me invested in learning who Bernadette really is.
Especially after her disappearance.
Two days before they are supposed to leave on the trip, Bernadette disappears. Bee’s hope remains even when her father’s disappears. I found myself rooting for Bee in her quest to find her mother, in the documents and in the world.
There are so many interesting reveals in the final third of the book that I don’t want to get into them. I found them all satisfying, even though the final document confirms Bee’s initial statement. I think we all want to be known and to know those we love. You can never really know someone which is quite sad.
But I agree with Bee – it’s worth it to try.