The novel opens smoothly, with an outstanding report card for Bee Branch, Bernadette Fox’s daughter, currently in 8th grade at Galer St School in Seattle. But from here, you will need to buckle your seatbelt for the rollercoaster ride that is Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple’s second novel. Bernadette is a recluse, hiding behind a flowing scarf and dark glasses, who finds the people of Seattle boring and annoying. The other school parents she refers to as “gnats”, and refuses to leave the house unless in dire need. Said house being a run-down ancient boarding school for girls, with blackberry ramblers just about holding the house together as they push through the walls and floor.
Bee seems, however, a perfectly ordinary, if bright, girl. It turns out her dad was a super smart guy whose software company was bought by Microsoft, at which point he moved house and became a super rich, super smart guy working in Redmond, while Bernadette was a brilliant architect in LA before they moved to Seattle. With that kind of genes, it’s no wonder that Bee’s had top grades since kindergarten. Her reward for all that effort? A trip to Antarctica – which Bernadette somehow manages to organise without ever leaving the house.
The novel is written as a series of letters, emails, vignettes and official reports, all centering on Bernadette. Bernadette’s slightly off-kilter nature is revealed as she emails her “virtual assistant”, Manjuna, in India, to arrange everything from Thanksgiving dinner reservations to prescriptions – and cruises to Antarctica. And it seems that maybe this is a blessing as whenever Bernadette leaves the house, strange things seem to happen around her. For instance she is accused of driving over a fellow school parent’s foot at school pick-up time.
The quirks of school parents aside, Bernadette’s history is also revealed in an article written about her as the lost genius of architecture, a green visionary before sustainable practices came into vogue, a brilliant artist in found materials and recycling. But she has stopped creating, and all that energy is twisted into seeming mindless rants against Seattle, the “gnats”, and Canadians. Until one day, Bee’s dad discovers dozens of empty medicine bottles in the bathroom, and seeks to stage an intervention. Unfortunately, and unexpectedly, during the intervention Bernadette manages to skip out of the house invisibly and disappear.
Distraught, Bee and her dad attempt to find her and are confronted with only more mystery. But for those who have been closely reading, there are clues and hints along the way so that you may just be able to spot Bernadette before Bee and her dad can. This novel is not just about the physical disappearance of Bernadette but also about her decisions that led her to hide away from her creative talents and bury herself in eccentricities in Seattle. Altogether, a very cleverly composed, remarkable book, hilarious and moving, and undeniably a page-turner.
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