When Bee, a high school student in Seattle, reminds her father, a Microsoft career elite, and her mother, a weird and wonderful shut-in named Bernadette, of their promise to take her to Antarctica if she maintains perfect grades, the two carefully agree to take the trip. The only problem? Bernadette gets sea sick easily, and, oh yeah, hates being around other people. Despite doing her best to make the trip happen, Bernadette gets wrapped up in some unusual happenings and then one day? She disappears.
Starring a truly delightful cast of characters, a hilarious, witty tone, and Dr. Seuss-ian settings, Where’d You Go Bernadette was fun to read from beginning to end. It’s told using letters, emails, faxes, and some narration, so expect an entertaining and constantly shifting perspective throughout. The story hosts characters ranging from hyperbolically un-self aware to purposely stereotypical and from relatable to flat-out weird. Bee is clever, Bernadette is completely bonkers, Elgin is cringeworthy. Soo-Lin cracked me up time and again with her talk of the support group “Victims Against Victimhood” and Audrey Griffin was a secondary character that nearly stole the show. This author has a great talent for drawing a reader in through interesting, engaging characterization and I applaud the humor she pours into the story through her people.
Also contributing to the whimsical tone of this book is the setting. Split between Antarctica and Seattle (specifically in the unusual housing arrangement of the Branch family in Seattle), the book explores putting down roots and also pulling them up. When times are solid, we watch Bernadette build houses out of practically nothing. When times are rough? The family is quite literally experiencing rough seas on a cruise boat. The motif of architecture throughout the story adds another layer of interest and had my literary brain working!
I also found the plot itself refreshing and unique. Though it’s very hard to summarize, the happenings of the story always kept me on my toes and looking ahead. Before starting to read, I assumed the mystery of the story would be a surface-level hunt for Bernadette. What I didn’t expect was the depth of Bernadette’s growth and the emotional undercurrent of the family’s entire adventure. Semple writes with hilarity and candor, but underneath she addresses intense human emotions and conditions. These two don’t often go hand in hand and I consider the balance a big win in Where’d You Go Bernadette. Using humor as a vehicle to drive themes such as lost personal identity, the role of careers in shaping personhood, the function of family units, and the physical space both inhabited and taken up by a person allowed me to get more deeply invested in these characters than I expected and made for a great reading experience.
Overall? A really fun, unique read! I recommend if you’re looking for something light but not quite fluffy.
PUBLICATION DETAILS: Little Brown; August 14, 2012; 9780316204279. Fiction -> Humor
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