Bee Branch lives in Seattle with her dad, Elgin, who works at Microsoft, and her mom, Bernadette Fox, who — well, let’s just say Bernadette does what she can to make Bee’s and Elgin’s lives happy, and doesn’t much care what the neighbors say. Bee is a top student at the Galer Street School, “a place where compassion, academics and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet.” This fuzzy thinking provides the takeoff point for Maria Semple’s hilarious novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.”
Galer Street is a top second-tier school (it’s located in an industrial park next to a wholesale seafood distributor), and much of the plot revolves around the efforts of its fundraising consultant, Ollie-O, to raise it to a top-tier school. The plan includes an outreach brunch for the very desirable Mercedes Parent (and a few other steps – Semple manages to include a thorough catalogue of consultant-speak in one short memo). The brunch is to be held in – where else? – the Griffins’ house next door to the Branches’ ramshackle, overgrown place. There’s conflict immediately, as Audrey Griffin wants some blackberry bushes, which Bernadette loves, cleared in advance of the party.
Bernadette is a complex character. Her husband and daughter love her dearly, but she avoids people generally and specifically hates most of the other Galer Street parents. Bee has negotiated a trip to Antarctica as a reward for her good grades, and Bernadette outsources most of the planning and outfitting of the trip. Tickets are obtained and packages arrive, but Bernadette’s state of mind declines rapidly. So rapidly, in fact, that Elgin decides to intervene. Unfortunately, Bernadette disappears.
Elgin and Bee don’t give up on her, but life without Bernadette isn’t the same. Semple uses several approaches to tell her story, including a series of emails (illustrating a digital-age epistolary novel) mixed with Bee’s first-person narrative. It’s an adept way of conveying the actions and motivations that Bee, who is only 12 when most of the story takes place, might not have fully understood when she witnessed it. The emails also allow Semple to shift among different characters’ points of view as the novel progresses. There are quite a few surprises along the way, and every one of them is convincing.
Semple skillfully skewers, among others, social climbers, modern parenting, Seattle (Beecher’s! recumbent bikes! the elite tiers of the various Microsoft shuttles!), and consultants. This book will take you through a long plane ride, a day at the beach, or, if necessary, a convalescence. What’s your favorite among Semple’s targets? Let us know in the comments.
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