Maria Semple’s critically acclaimed novel Where’d You Go Bernadette is one of the most refreshingly unusual family dramas I’ve ever come across in fiction. Through Semple’s ingenious storytelling, readers are introduced to Bee Branch, exceedingly intelligent eighth grade student at a Seattle-area private school and daughter to Bernadette Fox and Elgin Branch.
The story launches when Bee suggests a family trip to Antarctica, an idea which nearly pushes her overly-anxious mother over the edge. Once an L.A. architect, Bernadette despises her Seattle life, spends most of her time in an Airstream trailer in the family’s backyard, and delegates even the most mundane household tasks to a virtual assistant named Manjula. Meanwhile, her husband Elgin Branch is the picture of tech success, a Microsoft employee whose lead position on a new project gives him star status in the company and whose innovative work he discussed in the world’s fourth-most-watched TEDTalk. The tension between an agoraphobic mother, a workaholic father, and their brilliant child trying to exist as transplants in an elite Seattle community make up the stuff of this novel. But while this meager outline of Semple’s main plot points is certainly accurate, it does nothing to describe the experience of reading such a uniquely entertaining and constantly surprisingly book, equal parts satire and touching portrait of a family trying to navigate the absurd world in which they find themselves.
I usually find it irritating when novelists opt for an epistolary style, using a compendium of documents, such as email correspondence, news articles, and the like, in lieu of a traditional, straightforward first- or third-person narrative form. The former feels clunky and cumbersome, rendering it a chore to immerse myself in the world of a novel, rather than the delight it should be. But Semple deftly executes this often-aggravating device, parsing out bits of information on her own time and, in so doing, playing on readers’ curiosity. The correspondence of Semple’s many characters are interspersed with letters sent home from school, report cards, workplace memos, receipts, news articles, psychiatric reports, FBI files, and the like. Some of the emails are blatantly expository, documenting dialogue exchanges between the email-writer and other characters in a narrative fashion that would never be seen in real life emails. Doing this served to advance each character’s perspective so well, however, that I forgave the obviousness of Semple’s effort.
Although I did not find it to be clear initially, this collection of narrative artifacts is supposed to be presented to the reader at the hands of young Bee. This fact becomes more apparent with time. But it also means that, mixed among the epistolary documents, are brief but consistent blurbs of first-person narrative from the perspective of Bee. These more traditional sections of story serve to bring readers up to speed on Bee’s rational view of the situations at hand and act as a check in to make sure we readers pick up on all the subtle clues as to what is occurring. This, I believe, is a large part of what makes Semple’s novel work. We know who we as readers should be attending to most because we hear her voice directly.
Semple at first anchors her narrative documents around Bee and the Galer School which she attends in Seattle. Even though readers come to find that this novel is not so much about Bee’s education as it appears to be, this initial focus allows readers to gently settle into the world of that Semple has created. The material contained in the first section primarily consists of emails exchanged between Bernadette and her virtual personal assistant Manjula, correspondence between Galer School moms Audrey and Soo-Lin, delightful first-person interludes from Bee, and letters sent home from school personnel about attracting more “Mercedes parents” to their institution. Through the lens of this school community, I completely caught on to the complex central relationships and problems, even those contained within the Branch-Fox family unit. Granted, the majority of this information comes from Galer moms Audrey and Soo-Lin, who are obviously unreliable narrators. Nevertheless, their gossip-laden email exchanges about the Galer School community, and very often the Branch-Fox family in particular, convey the sense that something is objectively not quite right with this Bernadette character. Semple subtly suggests throughout part one that there is indeed something more to Bernadette’s oddities, a clearly identifiable reason for her unusual behavior which the title character evasively refers to as the Huge Hideous Thing that occurred in her past.
It is not until part two, however, that the specifics of this event are finally, tantalizingly, revealed. I failed to realize just how much I wanted to uncover Bernadette’s secrets until they began to emerge. Then I simply could not stop consuming the story, and therein lies the magic of the novel’s construction. I was torn between an intense desire to soak in every detail of every line and a compulsion to inhale this section as quickly as possible, seeking answers to my every last question. Would the Huge Hideous Thing that Bernadette cites as the cause for her family’s relocation to Seattle be related to criminal activity, a family on the run? Would it have to do with a deep and bruising pain, some issue more psychological than practical in nature? Would it be revealed that Bernadette was just as crazy as she seemed, having no sound logic to back up her choices, the title character proving unable to procure a description of the Huge Hideous Thing that warranted the reaction she took? I had no idea which way Semple would go, and it was this not knowing that made my desire to uncover the answers both so strong and so surprising.
As compelling as Bernadette’s past proved to be, the novel continued to unfold in delightfully unexpected and complicated ways, such that I was constantly questioning whose story this truly was. Does it really belong to Audrey and Soo-Lin, since their commentary on the affairs of the Branch-Fox family, at first, consist of the bulk of this novel? Or is it essentially the story of Bernadette, who is, after all, our title character? Bee’s character becomes rather dormant in the middle of the novel. But her perspective is the only one specifically intended for us as readers, so does the narrative belong to her? As we gain a fuller understand of each character’s backstory and their evolution over the course of the novel, our sense of who is heroine and who is not is called into question. With so many figures swirling about and their respective moralities constantly in flux, Semple kept me on my toes, never quite sure who to consider the protagonist. While to some this may sound like a patent flaw, it was done in so deliberate a manner that it actually proved to be one of the novel’s main strengths.
Ultimately, however, it becomes clear that this is the tale of Bernadette and Bee, a novel about the depths of the relationship between a tortured mother and her brilliant daughter. When Bernadette goes missing (which happens far later in the novel than I expected it to, given that the title suggests this very thing will occur), we see Bee transformed into a different child, coming unhinged with grief and confusion and a sense of despair. While the circumstances around Bernadette’s disappearance at first seem almost too fantastical for this book, they are adequately explained in due time, as are all mysteries in this novel. And with this explanation, the profundity of Bernadette’s relationship to her daughter is fully exposed with all of its beauty and flaws.
There isn’t much more I want to say about this novel for fear of spoiling the delightful unfolding unsuspecting readers have in store when they begin Semple’s book. This is a completely engrossing tale, with a touch of international adventure, a taste of the detective novel genre, and a healthy dose of good old family drama too. The characters are both fascinating and vivid, especially the female figures, while the satire is spot-on. But all of these seemingly-disparate elements, set in this slightly-more-absurd Seattle are nicely balanced by a sweet and particular type of mother-daughter relationship, the likes of which I have yet to see before in fiction.