Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Cover image for Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Sempleby Maria Semple

ISBN 978-0-316-20426-2

Disclaimer: I’m Canadian, I live in the Seattle area and my husband works for Microsoft. Some might say that makes me biased.

Americans are pushy, obnoxious, neurotic, crass—anything and everything—the full catastrophe as our friend Zorba might say. Canadians are none of that. The way you might fear a cow sitting down in the middle of the street during rush hour, that’s how I fear Canadians. To Canadians, everyone is equal… No wonder the only Canadians anyone has ever heard of are the ones who have gotten the hell out. Anyone with talent who stayed would be flattened under an avalanche of equality. The thing Canadians don’t understand is that some people are extraordinary and should be treated as such.”

Fifteen year old Bee Branch is the daughter of Elgin Branch, a Microsoft tech genius, and Bernadette Fox, a “retired” architect who left the profession in the aftermath of a “Huge Hideous Thing” she won’t talk about. They live in a crumbling historic school building in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighbourhood which Bernadette has failed to renovate. When Bee brings home perfect grades from her final year at a private elementary/middle school, she asks for a trip to Antarctica as her graduation present. Her parents agree and planning for the trip gets underway. There’s only one problem; Bernadette is so agoraphobic and antisocial that she has hired a virtual personal assistant from India to take care of everything from dinner reservations, to arranging grocery deliveries, to calling in prescriptions. How on earth will she manage to spend three weeks on a cruise ship to Antarctica? As the stress of the upcoming trip mounts, Elgin begins to question his wife’s sanity, and Bernadette goes MIA, leaving Bee to piece together what happened to her mother.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is composed of a variety of documents from emails, to newsletters, to magazine articles, with only the rare narrative interjection from Bee. Although Bee is the narrator, Bernadette, as the title character, dominates the narrative. However, Bee’s presence, and the focus of the book on how the events impact her give this adult novel a special appeal for young adults (it received the America Library Association’s 2013 Alex Award for crossover appeal). If anything, this novel would have benefited from showing more of Bee’s perspective. By the time her narration takes over the latter part of the book, we see only the truculent teen whose mother has abandoned her, and none of the bright, ambitious character the collection of documents revealed to the reader.

Semple has a sharp sense of humour and a keen eye for quirky details and situations, but plot development really isn’t her strong suit. Although we know from the outset that Bernadette is going to disappear, this inciting incident has a very long lead up, and somewhat disappointing conclusion. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a somewhat haphazard romp satirizing private school culture, intellectual elites, and Seattle generally. Semple’s depiction of Bernadette’s mental state is particularly troubling.

While I ultimately came to understand Bernadette, I wasn’t able to embrace her as the lovable misanthrope, which is normally a character type I enjoy immensely. Bernadette’s behaviour was just extreme enough that I felt like I was having fun at the expense of a mentally ill character. While Elgin’s attempts to have Bernadette forcibly committed were contemptible, Bernadette’s almost magical recovery stretched credulity, and in both cases the satire stumbled over the line from humour to caricatures and trivializations of mental illness and its treatment, leaving me uncomfortable with this book.

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