By the Book @ Rogers Memorial Library

Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette tells the delightfully quirky story of fifteen-year-old Bee Branch and her two genius parents.  Bee’s father, Elgin Branch, is a Microsoft guru, while her mother, Bernadette Fox, is a reclusive architect of obscure renown…who hasn’t taken on any new projects in the eighteen years since the family relocated from L.A. to Seattle.  Arrested Development writer Maria Semple brings a similar offbeat sensibility to her new novel, which is reminiscent of  Wes Anderson’s outlandish films, peopled by scarily smart and warped personalities, with Ph.D.’s in family dysfunction.

It all starts when Bee receives yet another stellar report card from Galer Street School.  She reminds her parents that they said she could have anything she wanted for a graduation present.  Precocious Bee declares that she would like to take a family trip to…Antarctica.  It’s quickly decided that over the Christmas break the trio will travel to the southern continent, though Bee’s agoraphobic mother is secretly petrified by this prospect.  So she outsources the trip planning to an online representative from Delhi Virtual Assistants International at $.075 USD/hr.  This does little to stave off Bernadette’s panic, which soon spirals out of control and triggers a chain of comically unfortunate events.  Then she disappears.

It’s up to Bee to find her mother, by following a trail of breadcrumbs left by Bernadette in the form of emails, letters, invoices, magazine articles, transcripts, police reports and more.  As readers piece together these clues, a portrait of Bernadette and the wacky world she inhabits comes into focus.  Along the way, Semple lampoons Galer Street School’s affluent über parents, as well as the northwestern city’s rarified techie world, with razor sharp dialogue and some truly hilarious scenarios, including an especially vicious ongoing fight with a neighbor about some blackberry brambles.  What gradually emerges is the fascinating picture of a loving, if at times misguided mother, who is also a force of nature.  Readers learn that a professional catastrophe, coupled with newfound motherhood, led Bernadette to tamp down her own creativity…at what turns out to be great personal cost to herself and those around her.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a little like your favorite, irrepressibly eccentric aunt.  You may not know what she’s going to do or say next, but it’s sure to be an entertaining ride.  At one point in Semple’s novel, a house that Bernadette designed out of found materials is likened to “walking into a big hug” — the colorful cast of characters in this terrific book embraces readers in a similar way.

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