As only a recent convert to the joys of reading a good thriller (see Jen’s post on Gone Girl), I approached Where’d You Go, Bernadette still holding on to the ghost of my past preconceptions. Despite the fact that it’s not marketed as a thriller, as soon as I read ‘goes missing’ in the blurb, I got the niggling thought in the back of my mind that the whole escapade might just make me fall into a sea of serious people-finding business, trashy sounding ‘cops’ and heaven forbid: forensics. Eventually I would drown in CSI-related horror, never to be seen reading a thriller again and cursing all those that did.
I needn’t have worried.
Maria Semple has written a thriller for people who don’t like thrillers. That’s not to say it doesn’t hold all the hallmarks of what (I have recently discovered) makes the genre great: it most certainly does. What makes it exceptional is an undercurrent of dark humour; the sort that makes you snort your latte out through your nose on a packed train of commuters then text your boyfriend saying: ‘You must dump me immediately – I think I just ROFLed.’ (That happened. Only replace ‘boyfriend’ with ‘flatmate’ and ‘latte’ with ‘tepid tap water’).
Bernadette’s narrative comprises the seemingly unflappable voice of fifteen-year-old Seattle resident Bee – the only child of Bernadette Fox and Elgie Branch – and a compendium of letters, emails, transcripts and school reports from and to various other characters, most notably her parents. Her mother, Bernadette is a one-time pioneering architect who has become somewhat of a recluse, albeit a hilarious and sometimes glamorous one, who doesn’t take any shit from anyone, particularly Audrey: her blackberry-hating, insane neighbour who deserves all she gets. Elgie works for Microsoft, on a high-profile project which has made him a YouTube sensation in geekdom, and is often seen in only his socks. Their house is falling apart – a decrepit, leaking and overgrown old school – and now so do their lives.
Bernadette goes missing the day before the family are due to go to Antarctica – a trip which has been making Bernadette anxious to the point of madness. As the story of what has happened to Bernadette unravels, so does the poise of the characters we thought so strong, and Semple’s twists and turns leave the reader revelling in a dizzy, thought-provoking high.
I defy anyone with a heart to not fall in love with this book; in particular, the ever-endearing Bee and the ever-confusing Bernadette. Ms. Fox is fast becoming one of my all-time favourite characters; a woman whose wit, neurosis and descriptions of Seattle left me frustratingly happy albeit always unsure of her next move. But even if you strip away the cast of complex, carefully thought-out characters, gripping plot, unusual narrative, truly heartbreaking moments and a sometime exotic background (though some might say the Microsoft offices do not constitute ‘exotic’), it’s just really, really funny – and who couldn’t do with a few more laughs?