Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Copyright 2012. Fiction. ISBN 9780316204262
Bernadette Fox—genius, architect, agoraphobe—has gone missing, and no one seems to know how or why. Then her fifteen-year-old daughter decides she’s had enough of the ambiguity and begins to do a little detective work, following a digital and paper trail to piece together where her mother went, and exactly who she is.
Style and Plot:
Where’d You Go, Bernadette circles around an upper-class family in modern Seattle: Bee (short for Balakrishna) is the exceptionally smart teen daughter, Elgin Branch is an important Microsoft employee who is married to Bernadette Fox, a woman introverted to the max and the scourge of her daughter’s school. The story is told in an epistolary format through emails, notes, report cards, and hospital bills, with a few interjections and explanations from Bee as she tries to find her mother.
It’s obvious from the first few paragraphs that author Maria Semple has an excellent sense of humor and satire. Every one of her characters is distinct and has their own way of doing things, and the way they bounce off each other is half the fun. Everyone is so human: uptight, irrational, happy, crazy, flawed, real. Semple has a grasp of the way humans react and behave that few other authors are able to portray in quite the same fashion.
However, for something known as a satire, WYGB tends to go for the low-hanging fruit in its social commentary. Galer Street School, where Bee attends, is trying to become a first-pick private Montessori school, so of course its patrons are too-earnest denizens of the middle class. Of course there are granola-munching, mass-transit-taking hippies. Of course there are comments about the liberal, or sometimes lack thereof, attitudes that permeate Seattle’s atmosphere. Of course. Of course.
Several of the events over the course of the novel seem ridiculous, but for a good number of chapters they avoid falling into “unbelievable” territory by virtue of human nature— it’s easy to picture everyday people acting in the way they do within this book, and it’s all delivered very tongue-in-cheek. Unfortunately, as the book reaches its climax, it crosses the fateful line, becoming less humorous and making a reader liable to win the world record for eyebrow height.
Still, Semple has a way with words that is obvious and undeniable, and her story is engaging (because everyone loves hearing about other people’s drama). WYGB’s ending finishes strong despite the incredulity of the chapters immediately previous to it, and overall the book is fast paced, energetic, and fun—things that seem to be lacking in a lot of modern literature.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette begins with what is apparently an outstanding report card from the school that Bee Branch attends. The next sections are narrated by Bee, and it’s then that you realize exactly how much Bee has earned the glowing reviews her teachers heap upon her. She uses words and phrases that few young teens would know or care about, and yet Semple has managed to capture the distinct manner of speaking particular to that age group. This isn’t as much of a turn-off as it could be— instead, it adds realism to the somewhat ungrounded novel.
Bernadette herself is an enigma and a contradiction, which makes her interesting. She’s extremely introverted in person, but can and will talk the ear off of anyone when emailing or writing letters—complete with misspellings and grammar mistakes. She loves her husband and daughter dearly, but often behaves in a selfish manner. She’s both sweet and vengeful. She has opinions, she has flaws, and she is not a character to be ignored.
All of Semple’s characters seem to get the same careful treatment: each of them has something to make them stand out—even the walk-on characters have personality. Granted, there are a great many side and secondary characters to keep track of, some recurring, some not, so the book may suffer from a little overpopulation, but it doesn’t detract from the whole story. Relatable characters that act like people make a book vivacious, and that’s a trait that WYGB doesn’t lack in the least.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a light and bright read, full of life, charm, and witticisms. 4 out of 5 stars.