I don’t believe I have ever read a book quite like Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? It is fast paced, but nuanced, funny but not shallow and multifaceted without being confusing. Most of all, this story reveals humanity in all its foolishness and fury with a bit of nobility mixed in. Just the way I like it.
To all outward appearances, Bernadette is a mildly nutty upper-class suburban Mom. Her daughter, 15 year old Bee, is a precocious, intelligent firebrand with a conscience. When Bernadette disappears after an increasingly horrific series of mishaps and mistakes, Bee becomes obsessed with finding her. In the process, the story takes on more twists and turns than a Texas tornado with exponentially more intrigue.
The most striking thing about this story is not the way it is constructed: emails, doctor’s notes, letters, bills and other correspondence interspersed with comparatively little first person narrative. Instead, what struck me most and kept me reading was the innate honesty and humanity of the characters. Even the “bad guys” are shown in multiple dimensions with the capacity to change and that is something both more truthful and far more rare than one generally sees in contemporary fiction.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is way outside my normal genre choice, and there were times when I got very irritated with some of the characters. I found Bernadette particularly frustrating due to her seeming narcissism and emotional blindness.
Despite these two factors, I could not put it down. I started to. Several times. But it was like it was glued to my hand. I had to find out what would happen next. Even with what should have been an eminently predictable ending, I found myself surprised, yet nodding at the absolute rightness of events as they played out.
A number of the reviews I read objected to the unusual structure, and if such things bother you, you may not like it as much as I did. But I have to say Semple’s take on upper class suburbanites is honest, humorous and well worth the read.