Where’d You Go, Bernadette opens with an invitation to turn the page:
“Mum disappears into thin air two days before Christmas without telling me? Of course it’s complicated. Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.
It doesn’t mean I can’t try.”
The style of writing is punchy and ingenious. Semple flits between emails, letters, faxes, F.B.I documents and Bee’s first person narrative. The story begins with Bee Branch’s report card from Galer Street School. She has surpassed all expectations and is now keen to collect the prize of her choosing – a family trip to Antarctica. Her parents, Elgin and Bernadette concede.
Semple then deftly moves to Bernadette’s email correspondence with Manjula, a Delhi Virtual Assistant. They have obviously been in correspondence for some times as Bernadette freely hands over her credit card details as she instructs Manjula to organise the family trip to Antarctica.
From India Semple moves back to Seattle with a hilarious letter from Ollie Ordway, a consultant brought in by Galer Street School to boost the status of the school from a ‘second –tier school’ to ‘First- Choice Cluster’ for the Seattle elite. In Ordway’s words the parents of Galer Street School need to stop thinking like ‘Subaru Parents’ and lift their sights to become ‘Mercedes Parents’.
Then we meet Bernadette’s neighbour, Audrey, as she emails her gardener about the threat of her property being overrun by Bernadette’s blackberries.
By the time the reader reaches page 20 we know Bernadette hates Seattle, despises the Galer Street School parent set, referring to them as ‘gnats’ and is vehemently hated by her neighbour, Audrey. We have heard nothing at all from Bernadette. Everything about her we have gleaned through email correspondence.
Semple’s style does not feel protracted. The different forms of narrative add to the pace of the book and paint a picture of the characters without any of them having spoken a word. It is a modern epistolary novel with a twist.
Added to all Bernadette’s woe is the source of the family income, the reason for their life is Seattle. Bernadette’s husband Elgin works for Microsoft, stands at his desk in socks, no shoes and is best known for his TedTalk which is the fourth most watched TedTalk. He is a fully fledged nerd. He makes and drinks green juice in the mornings before riding to work on his bicycle.
Bernadette hates her life. She was once an award winning architect. She bought the worst house in the street, but has never had the vision or the inclination to make it the best house in the street. Her daughter is following in her parents steps as a mini genius, despite a rocky start with numerous health scares, and has just been accepted into a prestigious boarding school.
With life boxing her in, Bernadette begins to show signs of breaking down. Elgin is concerned and Bee quite proud of her mother’s well known outbursts. As the trip to Antarctica bears down on Bernadette, life builds to a climactic crescendo.
Semple has written a brilliant comedic story of a mother’s misplaced genius and her daughter’s unfailing faith in her. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a tightly woven, fabulously funny novel.
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