Like many folks, I find December to be a hectic rush: often a happy hectic rush, but hectic nonetheless. December may not be a time of reading for a lot of people—where to fit it in? But if you’ve got that reading urge this holiday season, I think Where’d You Go Bernadette (M) by Maria Semple might be a perfect book for fitting in amongst on the pre- and post holiday bustle.
Bernadette Fox is not your average Seattle mom, but then again teenaged Bee is not your average daughter, nor for that matter, is Elgin Branch your average husband/dad. But let’s focus on Bernadette, because she’s the eponymous one. Bernadette has a virtual assistant in India who is helping out with daily tasks so that Bernadette can limit her contact with everyone in Seattle. The Fox-Branch family moved to Seattle from Los Angeles over a decade ago, and to be frank, Bernadette’s never really really warmed to it. In addition to more mundane chores like making dinner reservations, the virtual assistant is organizing a family trip to Antarctica on Bernadette’s behalf(although unbeknownst to her family, Bernadette is planning on bailing at the last minute). Bernadette loves her super-smart daughter, and her nerdy hero of a husband (he’s heading up a secret project at Microsoft, and his TED talk from awhile back went viral, making him an internet star) but she just can’t take people anymore. She hides away as much as possible in the falling down former school that the family calls home, but when a multitude of stresses and misunderstandings come to a head, Bernadette disappears.
Phew, that description seems somewhat breathless and convoluted, but it’s reflective, I think, of the style and the pacing of the story itself. An epistolary novel, Where’d You Go Bernadette uses letters and documents to weave together a delightful romp through the world of a family who have finally crossed over from quirky to fully dysfunctional. It’s a style that works perfectly for the book, with the author matching the idiosyncrasies of her characters with a less-than-conventional form. Where’d You Go Bernadette is definitely a funny book, but it’s not a fluffy one, despite the humour, there is also depth: the characters although eccentric are also very likeable (except for the ones who aren’t supposed to be) and the Seattle setting is vividly portrayed in all its rainy glory. This is a read-it-in-one sitting kind of book that will not only keep you chuckling long after you’ve finished the last page, there’s a good chance that a week or so after you’re done, you’ll find yourself wondering just how Bernadette is doing these days.
Semple has a previous novel This One Is Mine (M), but it’s her work in television that might give you a better sense of the humour and approach to Where’d You Go Bernadette: she’s written for the sitcoms Ellen, Mad About You and (the one that for me is closest in humour to the book) Arrested Development. Fans of the quirky, bitter sweet stories told in the films of Wes Anderson may find much to like in Where’d You Go Bernadette. If you are intrigued by the Antarctic subplot of the novel, you may be interested in the forthcoming book Antarctica: an intimate portrait of a mysterious continent (M).