For an average middle school student, a perfect report card might result in a pat on the back, or maybe an ice cream cone. For Bee Branch in Maria Semple’s hilarious comic caper “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” it means a family trip to Antarctica.
But Bee’s plans are complicated somewhat by her mother, the titular Bernadette, who finds herself torn between her devotion to her daughter and her crippling agoraphobia. Bernadette rarely leaves the house, outsourcing most of her errands to a virtual assistant in India.
Once a promising young architect leading the way in sustainable building practices, Bernadette’s talents have languished in Seattle, where the drivers are a little too polite. The other mothers at Bee’s school are a little too fanatic, and the state-line is far too close to Canada.
So Bernadette disappears into thin air without telling anyone — even Bee. Refusing to accept her father’s empty explanation that “the truth is complicated” or the possibility Bernadette may be dead, Bee investigates her mother’s correspondence leading up to her disappearance, with everyone from former colleagues to landscapers.
This collection of correspondence allows for the epistolary form of the novel. The author’s voice in each letter, email and instant message is perfectly rendered by Semple. Bernadette’s acerbic wit and intelligence easily wins over any reader, as her character becomes more and more defined with every missive. The inflated, meaningless chatter of two housewives, whose main callings seem to be gossiping about Bernadette, further illuminates her intense allergy to Seattle and its inhabitants. The correspondence is punctuated by Bee’s narrative, perfectly voiced as a precocious and determined 14-year-old girl.
Perhaps Semple’s only misstep is the novel’s uneven pacing. Bernadette doesn’t actually disappear until about two-thirds of the way through the novel. Leading up to her disappearance, Semple takes her time leading her characters through a multitude of interactions and instances ranging from mudslides to pharmacy trips.
However, these small moments add to the novel’s witty humor. Even when nothing is really happening, it’s still incredibly enjoyable to spend time with Semple’s characters, as she skewers private-school politics and suburban living.
Despite the novel’s light tone, Semple deals with some heavy themes here — depression, family dysfunction and the haunting of unfulfilled potential, to name a few — but they’re handled with such sharpness and wit that the reader never feels bogged down.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is the kind of book you can’t put down because of the eccentric characters, the screwball situations and, towards the end of the novel, to solve the mystery of Bernadette’s disappearance.
Ultimately, Semple’s novel about depression, family dysfunction and unfulfilled potential ends with the promise of healing, renewed determination and parental love. Semple has crafted a novel which alternates between humor and heart wrenching drama — a deft combination certainly worth reading.