Most novels are written from a single character’s point of view. Think “Call me Ishmael” from MOBY DICK. Ishmael is the narrator of Herman Melville’s book and the story is told from his point of view. When you write a story from one character’s point of view, you put an instant limitation on yourself: you can only write what that character knows. This can make telling your story challenging because sometimes, in order to advance the plot, it is necessary to include information the point-of-view character doesn’t have.
While we were on vacation last week, we read a book that handles this problem in some inventive and hilarious ways. WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple is told in the first person by eighth grader Bee Branch. But the focus of the story is Bee’s reclusive mother, Bernadette, who is in a world of her own. For instance, she outsources her chores to India. Rather than shop or go to the doctor or hire a landscaper, she e mails her virtual personal assistant. These transactions are an important part of the story and the narrator, Bee, originally knows nothing about them.
To get around this, Semple includes the actual e mails between Bernadette and her assistant:
From: Bernadette Fox
To: Manjula Kapoor
Oh! Could you make dinner reservations for us on Thanksgiving? You can call up the Washington Athletic Club and get us something for 7 PM for three. You are able to place calls aren’t you? Of course, what am I thinking? That’s all you people do now.
I recognize it is slightly odd to ask you to call from India to make a reservation for a place I can see out my window…
Semple’s book also includes letters, F.B.I. documents, correspondence with a psychiatrist and an emergency-room bill for a run-in between Bernadette and her neighbor. All these documents are collected, Semple tells us, and later delivered to Bee so she can include them in the story she is telling. Thus, Bee can report events that she didn’t know about when they happened. It’s really clever, as the New York Times review of the book noted:
“…these pieces are strung together so wittily that Ms. Semple’s storytelling is always front and center, in sharp focus. You could stop and pay attention to how apt each new format is, how rarely she repeats herself and how imaginatively she unveils every bit of information. But you would have to stop laughing first.”
If you read this book, stop laughing and pay attention to its construction. There is a lot to be learned.