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Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Review

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Told mostly in far-ranging letters, emails, bills, reports and other documents, this is the story of 15-year-old Bee ("Balakrishna") Branch, whose stellar report card from Galer Street, her Seattle middle school, topples the first domino in a string of hilarious (and yet often poignant) events. It seems Bee's brilliant parents, Bernadette Fox and Elgin Branch, have promised her anything her heart desires if she gets perfect grades in middle school. Bee is delighted because she wants them to take her to Antarctica over Christmas vacation. Bernadette and Elgin agree to the cruise, although Bernadette admits up front that she hates to travel.

"WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE is a sassy page-turner, filled with sardonic commentary on parenting, progressive schools, Seattle, the life of the privileged, and more. While causing readers to guffaw out loud frequently, it also manages to tug at our hearts in a back-handed, subtle manner..."

Bernadette confides in Manjula Kapoor, her virtual assistant in India, via email. In this electronic correspondence, she freely divulges her feelings about the promised cruise, of which dread is the primary emotion. Bernadette doesn't want to leave her house, and certainly doesn't want to interact with the other cruise ship passengers, "who will uniquely annoy the hell out of me with their rudeness, waste, idiotic questions, incessant yammering, creepy food requests, boring small talk, etc." Yet she feels strongly that Bee deserves her reward, and thus asks Manjula to take care of all the paperwork, including visas and tickets.

Meanwhile, a school consultant named Ollie Ordway ("Ollie-O") sends out a missive to the students' parents. Ollie-O's goal is to make Galer Street into a First-Choice Cluster (FCC) (he emphasizes important points by bolding them) instead of the second-tier school it is presently. The parents are encouraged to befriend and invite Seattle's elite parents to a Prospective Parent Brunch, which is to be held at the home of Galer Street parent Audrey Griffin.

Audrey happens to live at the bottom of the hill on which the home of the Branch-Fox family perches. She sends a note to a blackberry abatement specialist asking why her blackberry brambles have returned to her yard so soon after she paid to have them eradicated. The specialist informs her that the berries are creeping in from the Branch-Fox home. Readers soon glean, from the note sent home to Galer Street student parents, an emergency room bill, and a private email that there is an incident in which Audrey accuses Bernadette of driving over her foot. However, our narrator and guide through this story, Bee, happens to be in the car when this accident supposedly happens, and she begs to differ.

Emails continue to fly between Bernadette and Manjula Kapoor. Bernadette sends Manjula scans of the family members' passports so she will have all of their information necessary for buying tickets, accessing their bank account, and ordering supplies. She also tells this far-away virtual assistant how much she despises Seattle and the people living there. The reason they are in Seattle is because Microsoft (or "Big Brother," as Bernadette likes to call it) bought Elgin's animation company. Bernadette confides that she endured a Huge Hideous Thing in their previous home in Los Angeles that made her happy to flee the area. It seems she has a certain skill that led her to buy the "manse" they live in, which was once a girls' school, but is now a tumbledown 5,000-square-foot shambles, complete with vines growing up through the floors.

As the time for the family vacation draws near, a series of exorbitantly wild disasters occur. Before anyone knows quite what is happening, Bernadette is missing. Her daughter is determined to find her and chronicles her steadfast faith in her eventual reunion with Bernadette.

WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE is a sassy page-turner, filled with sardonic commentary on parenting, progressive schools, Seattle, the life of the privileged, and more. While causing readers to guffaw out loud frequently, it also manages to tug at our hearts in a back-handed, subtle manner as it contemplates questions of identity and unwavering  trust. The verdict: Maria Semple’s book ably earns its considerable and ever-building buzz.

Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on August 30, 2012

Where'd You Go, Bernadette
by Maria Semple

  • Publication Date: April 2, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316204269
  • ISBN-13: 9780316204262