The Next Chapter

Mary Berg of Mary's Kitchen Crush shares three favourite novels about dysfunctional families

The MasterChef Canada chef reviews French Exit by Patrick deWitt, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn and Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple.
Mary Berg is a chef based in Ontario. (Lauren Vandenbrook)
Listen17:07

Mary Berg is the Ontario home cook who was a winner of TV's MasterChef Canada and is currently host of Mary's Kitchen Crush. Berg is also the author of her debut cookbook, 2019's Kitchen Party

Berg is an avid reader and spoke with Shelagh Rogers about three of her favourite novels about dysfunctional families: French Exit by Patrick deWitt, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn and Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple. 

French Exit by Patrick deWitt 

Patrick deWitt's latest novel is French Exit. (Danny Palmerlee, House of Anansi Press)

"This book was nominated or shortlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize. It's a fantastic novel that follows a mother-son duo — Frances and Malcolm Price —  as their days of living a very well-funded life come to an end. It begins in New York and then it moves across the Atlantic to Paris. 

It's interesting seeing these characters who, on the outside, give that presentation of that perfect life.

"Eventually they find themselves with an eclectic bunch of oddball characters as they become a pseudo-family — which I find an interesting juxtaposition. It's interesting seeing these characters who, on the outside, give that presentation of that perfect life. They're wealthy, they're affluent, they're very nonchalant and aloof and that can seem intriguing. 

"But when you get into the meat and potatoes of the book, you realize that this strange and protective apathy that they're putting on is to protect themselves from their own family intricacies."

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn 

Geek Love is a 1989 novel by Katherine Dunn (Vintage, Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images)

"It is grotesque and strange but a wonderful story.  The 'geek' in the title is the geeking of chickens, which is biting the head off of the chickens in a carnival sideshow.

"Geek Love centres on the Binewski family. They're a family of seven who are a travelling carnival. When faced with their failing business, Al concocts this relatively cockamamie plan to create environments through awful things — whether it's through prescription or illicit drugs or radioactivity — to create babies with his wife, Lil, that will fund the sideshow.

The story encompasses everything from current carnivals and cults to normal family issues.

"There's Arty, who has fins and is known as Aqua boy. Elly and Iphy are conjoined twins who play the piano. Oly is a hunchback who has dwarfism and albinism. And Chick, while appearing unaltered and originally meant to be abandoned by the family because he looked so normal, has telekinetic powers.

"This book stayed with me because it's so incredibly readable. It is so beautifully written. It oscillates between gorgeous, almost lyrical words to this brutal, grotesque description of things. But all of it flows so beautifully together.

"The story encompasses everything from from current carnivals and cults to normal family issues. It's the normal family issues that have made it stay with me for so long."

Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go Bernadette is a 2012 novel by Maria Semple. (Little, Brown And Company, John M. Heller/Getty Images)

"This book is such a brilliant look at the child-parent relationship. It's assembled and linked together, as opposed to told in a narrative prose. I find it a fun and engaging read. I got a lot of opportunities to draw the pieces together on my own without being hand-held into it.

"It is one of those books where you realize how horrifyingly normal your parents are and how flawed and messed up they are in and of themselves. It's told from the perspective of Bernadette's 15-year-old daughter, through primary sources such as emails that she's collected and through notes that her mom has left her.

It is one of those books where you realize how horrifyingly normal your parents are and how flawed and messed up they are in and of themselves.

"It looks at that close-knit family relationship between a daughter and mother, in which they lean on each other and they find solace in each other no matter what the world or life throws at them."

Mary Berg's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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