While the themes in Maria Semple’s new novel are adult—depression, marriage troubles, parent-child relationships—I often felt like I was reading a children’s chapter book, a sort-of Harriet the Spy for grown-ups.
Partly, it’s because the narrator (when there is a narrator) is eighth-grader Bee Branch: a precocious free spirit trying to find her missing mom. (Yes, there’s a mystery.) And most of the adults in the book act like children, with gossip and hissy fits worthy of middle school. But primarily it’s because the book is constructed of documents such as emails, letters, and newspaper clippings strung together by Bee’s first-person narration. So it has a “this isn’t really a book” quality, replete with devices used to captivate less enthusiastic young readers.
Nothing earth-shattering here, but Where’d you go, Bernadette is a clever, comical read about a Seattle/Microsoft family that’s imploding. Semple wickedly pokes fun at Seattle in general—wet weather, boundless compassion, lack of style—and Microsoft (“Mister Softy”) in particular. She constructs some amusing slices of school life that will ring true even if you sent your kids to plain old public school: fundraisers, rules for drop-off and pick-up, one-upmanship amongst parents. There are characters you’ll love to hate, and some who will change and grow.
There’s also a sweetness to the love shared between Bee and her unusual mom, Bernadette, that feels both authentic and heart-warming even in the midst of goings-on that are definitely for the privileged few: a family trip to Antarctica, a virtual assistant, headline-grabbing accomplishments, and the fourth-most popular TEDTalk of all time.
If there’s one thing that binds author to reader, it’s the slipping in of a casual detail that resonates beyond the story. Here, Bee’s father recalls that “when Bee was two, she developed a strange attachment to a novelty book Bernadette and I had bought years ago from a street vendor in Rome . . . It has photographs of present-day ruins, with overlays of how they looked in their heyday.” I’m sure I paged through that very book, Rome Past and Present, one day in the library at the university where I work—though I can’t currently find it in the catalog. (Maybe a student absconded with it; it was a very cool book!)
Have a little fun. Read Where’d You Go, Bernadette.