Beth F, August 13, 2012 (view all comments by Beth F)
Bernadette Fox might be a brilliant architect but she also has just a little problem with her people skills. That little problem led to big problems, and when her husband, Elgin Branch, was offered a top-tier job with Microsoft, she was happy to move to Seattle. Well, she liked the real estate prices. All right, in truth, she hates the city with its wholesome goodness and five-street intersections.
Bernadette is not like the other moms at Galer Street School, but fourteen-year-old Bee is just fine with that. Her mom is one of her besties, even if she isn't exactly Donna Reed. Despite her lack of cooking skills, her abandonment of her career, and her reliance on a virtual assistant (located in India), Bernadette loves her daughter and is all ears when Bee announces what she wants for an early graduation present.
The trip to Antarctica came as a bit of shock. Okay, it came as a big shock: Bernadette hates to travel, can't stand the thought of being cooped up on a ship with strangers, and gets seasick. On the other hand, she can't deny Bee her trip, and besides, all the necessary online shopping for cold-weather clothes and supplies sounds like it could be fun.
There's just one tiny glitch: The police, the Galer Street School, the neighbors, an architecture graduate student, the FBI, and the Russian mob have all taken a sudden interest in Bernadette. And on the eve of departure . . . Bernadette departs. Alone. She is last seen on a ship somewhere off the coast of Antarctica. Is she dead or alive? Is she hiding or does she want to be found? Bee compiles all the known documents, files, e-mails, and memos concerning her mother and attempts to solve the mystery.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple's second novel, is more than the story of the Branch family and the puzzle of Bernadette's disappearance. Through humor moderated with more poignant moments, Semple takes a jab at helicopter moms, overworked techno geeks, private middle schools, and today's families. It's a fun story about how little things can quickly spin out of control, especially when Bernadette is involved.
As in her first novel, Semple proves to be a master at creating characters who are a touch crazy but not quite over the top. You'll love Bee, the tolerant daughter and perfect student who struggles with her emotions after her mother vanishes. And you'll laugh with and cry for Bernadette and Elgin and their unique relationship and individual worldviews.
Although most of the novel is told through the documents Bee assembles about her family, Semple makes it easy to picture even the most minor characters. You'll especially remember the uptight next-door neighbor, the enthusiastic school fund-raiser, the insecure underling at Microsoft, and even the virtual assistant.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a spunky and smart look at modern life and what happens when you try to put a lid on creative energy. Maria Semple is now on my permanent must-read list.
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"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"In her second novel (after This One Is Mine), Semple pieces together a modern-day comic caper full of heart and ingenuity. Eighth-grader Bee is the daughter of Microsoft genius Elgin Branch and Bernadette Fox, a once-famous architect who has become a recluse in her Seattle home. Bee has a simple request: a family cruise to Antarctica as a reward for her good grades. Her parents acquiesce, but not without trepidation. Bernadette's social anxiety has become so overwhelming that she's employed a personal assistant from Delhi Virtual Assistants Intl. (who makes '$0.75 USD/hr.') for tasks as simple as making dinner reservations. How will she survive three weeks on a boat with other live human beings? Maybe she won't; a day before the trip, Bernadette disappears, and Bee gathers her mother's invoices, e-mail correspondence, and emergency room bills in the hopes of finding clues as to where she went.The result is a compelling composite of a woman's life — and the way she's viewed by the many people who share it. As expected from a writer who has written episodes of Arrested Development, the nuances of mundane interactions are brilliantly captured, and the overarching mystery deepens with each page, until the thoroughly satisfying denouement. Agent: Anna Stein, Aitken Alexander." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
by Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom,
"The characters in Where'd You Go, Bernadette may be in real emotional pain, but Semple has the wit and perspective and imagination to make their story hilarious. I tore through this book with heedless pleasure."
by Janet Maslin, The New York Times,
"Comedy heaven....This divinely funny, many-faceted novel...leaves convention behind. Instead, it plays to Ms. Semple's strengths as someone who can practice ventriloquism in many voices, skip over the mundane and utterly refute the notion that mixed-media fiction is bloggy, slack or lazy....The tightly constructed Where'd You Go, Bernadette is written in many formats — e-mails, letters, F.B.I. documents, correspondence with a psychiatrist and even an emergency-room bill for a run-in between Bernadette and Audrey. Yet these pieces are strung together so wittily that Ms. Semple's storytelling is always front and center, in sharp focus. You could stop and pay attention to how apt each new format is, how rarely she repeats herself and how imaginatively she unveils every bit of information. But you would have to stop laughing first."
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