Monday, July 14, 2014

Book Review: Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

Two years ago everyone was talking about Where'd You Go Bernadette. I put it on my to-read list and my Amazon wish list, and then I promptly forgot about it. That was a big mistake, but one with a redeeming quality -- it meant I got to enjoy it this summer.

Author Maria Semple began her writing career with a different sort of writing -- television screenwriting. She wrote for shows like Beverly Hills, 90210, Mad About You, and Arrested Development, among others, so it is no surprise I liked her writing style.

I listened to the audiobook version of Where'd You Go Bernadette, so I can't speak to how the layout of the novel works in print. Written in emails, reports, articles, and the like (even a report card), it would be easy for it to fall apart and become a loosely jumbled together mess lacking any cohesion. Instead, in Semple's hands, it flows seamlessly, relating the story of Bernadette Fox's disappearance and her daughter Bee's search for the truth.

Bee lives with her Bill Gates-like tech genius father Elgin Branch and her brilliant architect mother Bernadette Fox. The family has a 10,000 square foot house in Seattle. Her father makes huge money at Microsoft, Bee attends a private school, and -- at least on the surface -- all seems to be golden.

But the truth is a bit darker and less than golden. Elgin spends almost all of his time at work, the house is an old girls' school in a state of chronic disrepair, and Bernadette hasn't worked (or even frequently left the house) in years. Bee, a model student and extraordinarily likable girl, is the family's shining star; she lights up their world.

As she prepares to graduate from middle school, she cashes in on her parents' long-ago promise to give her anything she wants as a graduation present. Antarctica. Specifically, a cruise to Antarctica. Her parents acquiesce, although her mother secretly tries to find ways out of leaving the house and living in such close proximity to other people during their trip. One of her coping mechanisms is to farm out the responsibilities of planning the trip to a virtual assistant in Indian whom she hires over the internet.

As Elgin hires a new admin during a whirlwind project at work and Bernadette spins crazily out of control, only Bee remains oblivious to the disastrous path her family seems bound to spiral down. Things reach a boiling point when Elgin decides he must intervene and Bernadette disappears. 'Where did Bernadette go?' is the question that drives the novel, although Semple reveals so much more throughout the course of the book.

At once a piercing satire and a genuinely heart-warming tale, Where'd You Go Bernadette is a must-read. You will fall in love with all of the characters, then become dangerously annoyed with them, and ultimately love them once again.

Links with love for Bernadette:

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