Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the story of Bernadette Fox – mother of Bee; wife of Elgin Branch: Microsoft creative genuis; antagoniser of the Parent Association at Galer Street School.
The novel begins with Bee’s exemplary school report:
Bee is a pure delight. Her love of learning is infectious, as are her kindness and humour. Her goal is always deep understanding of a given topic, not merely getting a good grade.
And so on. This establishes three things: Bee’s intelligence and therefore, ability to narrate the novel; Bee’s reward for her outstanding report – a trip to Antarctica, which becomes a focal point, and (from her reaction to both the report and the planned excursion) Bernadette’s character.
Bernadette has an internet assistant, Manjuela, whom she employs to do a variety of tasks from making reservations for Thanksgiving dinner to organising prescriptions for seasickness medication.
Of the million reasons I don’t want to go to Antarctica, the main one is that it will require me to leave the house. You might have figured by now that’s something I don’t much like to do. But I can’t argue with Bee. She’s a good kid.
The only way to get to Antarctica is by cruise ship. Even the smallest one has 150 passengers, which translates into me being trapped with 149 other people who will uniquely annoy the hell out of me with their rudeness, waste, idiotic questions, incessant yammering, creepy food requests, boring small talk, etc.
By this point (page eight), I already loved Bernadette.
The majority of the novel is told through a collection of reports, emails and letters with occasional narration from Bee. This gives the book a range of voices and a good variety of pace and tone, as well as allowing for some excellent set pieces.
Semple does a great job of creating characters whose behaviour, while often outrageous, remains within the bounds of credible and allows for numerous comic moments.
Take Audrey Griffin, for example. Audrey Griffin is your annoying next-door neighbour. The one who comments on the ‘state’ of your house and garden:
Audrey started short-circuiting about our blackberry bushes and her organic garden and the guy who had a friend with a special machine and something that needed to get done this week.
The one who runs the Parents’ Association at your child’s school:
I created the Diversity Council. I invented Donuts for Dads. I wrote Galer Street’s mission statement, which that fancy company in Portland was going to charge us ten thousand dollars for.
The one who thinks their child is a little angel:
‘We found something in Kyle’s locker yesterday.’ She held up an orange pill bottle. It had my name on it – it was the Vicodin prescription I got after Our Lady of Straight Gate tried to plow me over in her car.
‘What’s that doing here?’ I said.
‘Kyle?’ Gwen said.
‘I don’t know,’ said Kyle.
‘Galer Street has a zero-tolerance drug policy.’ Gwen said.
‘But it’s prescription medicine,’ I said, still not understanding her point.
While the book focuses on Bernadette and – through her relationships with the other characters – what’s become of her personally since her family’s move to Seattle, it also considers what we really know of other people – how we judge and misrepresent for our own ends.
This is the second time I’ve read Where’d You Go, Bernadette and it was every bit as good as the first. I’ll be adding it to my collection of ‘comfort’ reads to return to as and when I need a guaranteed cracking good read.