I’d been in a book lull before I read this: not reading much and what I did read I read slowly. Then I read most of this book in a day. It probably helped that Semple used to co-write Arrested Development, a show I have watched far too many times and still love. Where’d You Go, Bernadette focuses on the life of Bernadette Fox: a former architectural prodigy and mother of 15-year old Bee. Bee fits in fine with the people at school, but Bernadette doesn’t fit in with the other mums. It was interesting to read about a lead female character who had achieved a lot but was struggling in her day-to-day life.
Bee is promised a trip to Antarctica if she does well at school, which she ends up doing. Amongst other things, including irritating neighbours and a husband who isn’t really there for her, fear of this trip sends Bernadette over the edge: she ends up going missing. The book is Bee’s quest to find her mother. I don’t want to give too much away because the twists and turns in the plot make the book incredibly readable. The characters find themselves in unexpected places, mentally and literally.
Semple writes about topics which could be melodramatic in other writers’ hands: a mother going missing, her downfall, a family falling apart. But Semple writes with such lightness that you don’t actually realise how deep the story is until afterwards (this may not sound like a compliment but it is – she is a clever writer). Schemes backfire: some characters can be quite conniving but Semple compassionately shows different sides to them. One of Bernadette’s neighbours lies that Bernadette ran over her foot; but a different side of her is shown by the end of the book. The pettiness of some of the characters is shown to have reasons: they aren’t solely evil antagonists, irritating though they are at the beginning. Nobody here is perfect.
And it made me want to go to Antarctica! Bee’s school assignment on the Drake Passage left me reading all about it on Wikipedia. I hadn’t thought about Antarctica much before but this book made me want to know more about it; more about the people who live there for stretches of time. Part of me wants to experience the Drake Passage – the incredibly treacherous body of water separating South America from Antarctica– because of it is so different from my everyday life. The over-willingness that the women who run the shop in Port Lockroy have to talk to new people shows the loneliness that must come from living in Antarctica; Semple sees the absurdity and humour in this situation too, though.
I would definitely recommend Where’d You Go, Bernadette to anyone! It was one I raced through, and I look forward to reading whatever Semple writes next.