The words exchanged between Elgie and his daughter, Bee, in Where’d You Go Bernadette, the novel by Maria Semple that I finished yesterday and whose absence I feel today. They are discussing Bee’s mother, Bernadette, who has disappeared and in these words they get right to the heart of the novel: a complex woman shunted into a life that no longer allows her to create and so denies her the right to express her essential self.
The exchange also suggests a depth of relationship and understanding between husband and wife and mother and daughter, and these relationships, along with creativity, also form the heartbeat of the story.
It is a wonderfully fresh novel, epistolary in a contemporary email – memo kind of a way, reminiscent of A Visit To the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan, who I quoted yesterday. Semple would definitely pass Egan’s test of working hard, writing with an open mind and doing something difficult to achieve an end which is richer and truer than many straight-told-tales. Semple’s tale is a social satire to rival Austen but set in Microsoft Seattle rather than Georgian England.
It is the theme of creativity that really spoke to me though, especially as I spent most of July feeling chronically sick (notice the lack of entries) and so unable to write or concentrate on writing. I’d spent over a year writing every day, clocking up the hours at my desk, and all of a sudden, editing a page, scribbling a few notes, writing a few lines of dialogue, was about as much as I could manage. I didn’t feel like myself – and, like Bernadette, I began to feel like ‘a menace to society’. Sadly, there isn’t much society to menace in sleepy Shinfield, but I’m sure my husband will tell you that he picked up enough blows to satisfy a small community.
It is dangerous not to be able to create, to express that part of ourselves that makes us feel most alive. I am getting back into my rhythm now, but I need to build up my stamina again – a bit like going to physiotherapy to nurse an injured limb back to fighting form. But it’s back and I’m more grateful than ever for this gift of creating worlds and characters, a process that makes me whole.