I always seem to pick up Bandwagon Books (as I call them) about two years after everyone has stopped talking about them. A few weeks ago, when I was contemplating my library hold list, I vaguely remembered hearing good things about Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and decided to give it a try. Apparently everyone else who patronizes my library had the same thought, because it took three months for the book to work its way down the hold list to me, but eventually I got it. I ripped through the book in about three days, which makes me wonder if I should bump up the rating to four stars, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it, for reasons I’ll discuss later.
Our heroine is Bee, a fifteen-year-old girl who lives in Seattle with her father, who’s an important programmer at Microsoft (and if you’re wondering if this will inspire a lot of jokes about Apple vs. Windows, you’re sadly correct), and her mother Bernadette. Bernadette is severely agoraphobic, to the extent where she has a “virtual assistant” – a woman in India named Majula – who arranges her schedule, pays the bills, and does any other task that would require going outside or talking to people. The family exists like this until Bee throws a wrench in the works: Bee, who was promised a family trip in exchange for getting perfect grades, decides that she wants to go on a cruise to Antarctica. Bernadette does her best to prepare for the trip, but the stress (combined with her husband’s belief that she’s about to have a psychotic breakdown) is too much, and Bernadette vanishes from the house one afternoon.
Bee attempts to track her mother down, and this involves researching her mother’s past and looking into her correspondence, and those around her. The book is formatted as Bee’s “research” – emails, letters, and articles that the character has collected through various means. I’ve never been crazy about this particular method of formatting a novel (Dracula, which consisted entirely of letters written by the characters telling us what had happened, was especially tiring after a hundred pages), mostly because it’s too easy to start questioning the convenience of how detailed and informative the random bits of information are. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is especially guilty of this when it comes to the emails that are exchanged between a mother at Bee’s school and a woman who works with her father – the two women detail every important moment of their days (in prose that exactly matches Bernadette’s narrative voice, I might add) and it’s all just too convenient. Also the emails are procured thanks to the classic Hacker Character, which, ugh. And most frustrating, Semple doesn’t even commit fully to the format – there are a few occasions where she can’t find any way to describe what happens through an email or a letter, so she switches over to traditional first-person narration for a few pages. I guess even Semple didn’t want to cave to the “diary writer records every single event and conversation with perfect accuracy” trope.
At least Bernadette was interesting, and made for a good wild card. I never knew quite was she was thinking or what she might do next, which provided a nice sense of drama and urgency in the story. Some aspects of the book were still a little too unrealistic and only functioned to serve the plot (it’s one of those “the central mystery of the story is drawn out thanks to a completely out-of-character action” mysteries), but ultimately this was a fun story, with just enough of a mystery to keep me interested.
Verdict: three out of five stars