I’m going to do that thing I do when I don’t much like a book everyone else is raving about. It’s rare that a book lives up to the hype (Skippy Dies is one of the few that did), and Where’d You Go Bernadette just falls short.
Bernadette lives in Seattle with her husband Elgie and daughter Bee. She’s pretty peculiar, and spends all of her reclusive life railing against her fellow humans (Sartre’s ‘hell is other people’ quote springs to mind), obsessing over perceived slights and rejecting the general absurdity of life. When Bee aces all her classes at middle school, she demands a cruise to Antarctica as her long-promised reward. This means that Bernadette is faced with having to deal with real people in close quarters, and she starts to unravel.
The novel uses a multitude of ‘source material’, with various different characters taking up the thread of the story. There are emails between friends, colleagues and employees; a transcript of a TED talk that Elgie gave; notes from doctors and articles about Bernadette’s brief career as an architect. So we learn of Bernadette’s state of mind and the past that brought her to where she is today through her emails to an Indian assistant she found on the internet. Exchanges between Elgie’s assistant and her best friend Audrey (a mother at Bee’s school) reveal an outsider’s views of Bernadette’s eccentric behaviour, and the feud between these latter two women provides some of the best moments of the novel.
While the book may be charming and funny in places, the story telling is a bit cack-handed. There is a pointless sub-plot about the Russian mafia that we could have done without, and the entire portion of the book following Bernadette’s physical disappearance loses its way. Faced with the challenge of bringing all the threads of the story together, Semple struggles.
So, while the book doesn’t live up to the hype, it’s worth a read. Just don’t expect too much.