PUBLICATION DATE: August 14, 2012
he worse thing about Where’d You Go Bernadette might be its somewhat clunky title. Don’t let the title dissuade you from picking up this book, which is an example of talented story-telling.
Bernadette is a brilliant architect who is taking a break from her career. She and her husband, Elgie, and their daughter, Bee, have moved from California to Seattle, where Elgie works at Microsoft and Bee attends the prestigious Galer Street School, her last stop en route to Choate. It’s clear from the beginning that Bernadette doesn’t like Seattle: neither the people nor the city itself.
We begin to sense that all is not well with Bernadette when we learn that she rarely leaves the house and can barely interact with people other than her family members. She orders things off the Internet and has even employed a “virtual assistant” from India, Manjula, to help her with various tasks, including planning their upcoming family trip to Antarctica. The thought of spending all that time on a ship with fellow passengers tortures Bernadette, but she and Elgie have promised Bee that they will go anywhere she wants as a reward for her perfect school grades. When Bernadette, who suffers from sea sickness, learns that they will need to cross the Drake Passage, one of the roughest patches of water in the world, she starts to think of ways to avoid going on the trip. Meanwhile, Bee has gotten into Choate, Elgie is perpetually stuck at work, and Bernadette gets into a disagreement with their neighbor, Audrey Griffin, over blackberry bushes.
As the story, much of which is told in emails, faxes, and letters, heats up, we learn more about Bernadette’s past and why this lauded architect isn’t currently working. In fact, the family’s house is in a state of perpetual disrepair.
As the trip to Antarctica draws closer, the tension builds. Elgie begins to have serious concerns about Bernadette’s mental health, and he and Bee are shocked when Bernadette disappears.
By the end of this remarkable story, we find out what happened to Bernadette, and all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
I don’t normally enjoy epistolary novels, but this is certainly an exception. Even though most of the story is told through correspondence (and some brief portions narrated by Bee), there’s absolutely no problem with the narrative flow. Semple builds the tension expertly and I could hardly bear waiting to find out what would happen next.
At times, Bernadette is a pretty tiresome character, but just when I began to feel frustrated with her, something would be revealed that would cause me to sympathize with her.
Most of all, I am impressed with the range of emotions in this book. At times, it’s truly laugh-out-loud funny, especially when Semple is skewering Seattle and the people associated with Bee’s school. At other times, it’s incredibly sad and heart-wrenching. Above all, this is a remarkable story, and I loved how all the storylines fit together in the end.
ernadette Fox is a famous architect who has only built two buildings, yet she is considered one of the most innovative builders in the field with her pioneer ideas of green architecture and recycling. Not soon after finishing one of her masterpieces, Bernadette Fox recluses herself from the architecture industry and holes up in Seattle, where her husband, Elgin Branch makes exciting strides in technology for Microsoft. With two brilliant parents, Bee Branch is a gifted young girl who has a soft heart and fierce sarcasm.
When Bernadette goes missing, Bee writes a book compiling correspondence and documents that may give clues to where her mother may have gone. In the process, Bee learns more than she ever knew about her parents, but one thing proves true: her unconditional love.
The first thing that you immediately notice when you begin this book is the unconventional style. This isn’t written like a story, but it’s a collection of letters, emails, reports and other documents that Bee records in order to find out where her mother went and why she might have disappeared. Overall, the story is told in first person as Bee may share her thoughts on a letter or a memory that is relevant. However, Semple is able to give us valuable insight to other character’s thoughts and attitudes by this way of writing. While I was concerned that this may make the story flow poorly and choppy, it was surprisingly easy to make transitions and made for an entertaining story. Although, there are times where it is unbelievable that the characters will write such extremely long letters and use dialogue while writing an email or letter.
The characters are what make this novel so entertaining. Semple is no novice to satire with her former career as a screenwriter for Mad About You and Arrested Development, and she doesn’t disappoint with Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Through Bernadette, she pokes fun of the Seattle culture, weather and charter school life. All of which may or may not be true, as little ole me hasn’t been west of Peoria, Illinois. Although Bernadette has a lot of issues, she is an attentive mom. Bee’s father, Elgin, is largely absent in their home life. He is a stereotypical genius in that he is eccentric and odd.
Here at TCM, we believe that secular works can be used for the Glory of God. What can the reader take away from Where’d You Go, Bernadette? There are two times in the story that made a large impression on me. At one point in the novel, Bernadette writes to her mentor about what she has done since she left the architecture industry and disappeared from public view. Bernadette completely acknowledges that she is whining and wallowing in self-pity and the letter is comically long. This is his response:
Are you done? You can’t honestly believe any of this nonsense. People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.
If we don’t use our passions, talents, and interests (i.e. God’s gifts), then we focus our energies on menial things and will become menaces to society. In Bernadette’s case, she forges a personal war with other stay-at-home mom at Bee’s school and her neighbors. All she thinks about is how she hates every single little detail about Seattle and making sure her family knows it. Semple shares this lesson with us again in a different context. Bee is assisting a scientist about penguins and observing how climate changes are affecting their reproduction.
“What behavior did you observe?” Nick asked when he got back.
“The penguins that spent most of the time fighting were the ones with no chicks,” I said.
“There you go,” he said.
“It’s like they’re supposed to be taking care of their chicks. But because they don’t have any, they have nothing to do with their energy. So they just pick fights.”
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is an entertaining story that focuses on family dysfunction and a particular family who fights to make it work. It gives a reminder to think of where we should focus our energy and what we need to let go of the things that don’t matter in the large scheme of things.
Note: This novel does contain profanity, suggested, inexplicit drug use, and inexplicit adultery.