Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is a real pleasure to read. I particularly love the voice of the young narrator, Bee, the 14-year-old daughter of Bernadette.
The story begins with the shocking fact that Bee’s mother, the funny, talented but somewhat volatile Bernadette, is missing. She was last seen just before Christmas, and Bee’s father Elgin, a celebrated Microsoft geek, is refusing to speak about his wife or the disappearance. So Bee decides to investigate and begins to chart the events leading up to Bernadette’s disappearance through emails, doctor’s and police reports written by people who came in contact with Bernadette and could have had a role to play in her disappearance.
What follows is a hilarious, tragic and poignant tale of Bernadette’s life. Artistically talented and driven, Bernadette has been going through a personal crisis for some time. Soon after moving to Seattle to support her husband’s new glittering career at Microsoft, she realises how different from everyone else she is and feels ostracised in the forever rainy, suburban Seattle. The well-meaning, but small-minded, parents of Bee’s school (or Gnats as Bernadette calls them) soon begin to develop a strong resentment against Bee’s mother, which turns into an obsessive hatred. The one person who could help Bernadette, Elgin, remains ignorant of Bernadette’s unhappiness and she becomes more withdrawn. Elgin doesn’t seem to notice that Bernadette hardly ever speaks to anyone, or leaves the house, apart from Bee’s school runs, during which she stays within the confines of her car, wearing dark sunglasses whatever the weather. Or that she spends all of her days inside an Airstream trailer parked in the garden of the family’s falling-down house.
When Bee wants the whole family to go on a three week cruise to Antarctica, Bernadette panics. How will she able to leave the house and spend three weeks in the company of complete strangers?
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a brilliantly conceived tale of suburbia, and how the minor setbacks of everyday can turn into major disasters. Telling a story of a 50-year-old woman’s personal crisis through the voice of a 14-year-old would have been problematic had it not been for the injections of the emails and reports written by grown-ups. These ‘real’ documents give the story a multi-layered quality. Reading between the lines of emails written from one (female) parent from Bee’s school to another (the two Gnats) is particularly enjoyable. It’s not what’s said, but what’s not…(I’ve read a few of these in my time).
I gave this book five stars, which is is rare, but I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. Take it on a long journey, or on holiday with you, or read it when you’ve broken your little toe (an every day occurrence).