Eight grader Bee Branch’s family is not like the other’s at her school. Her workaholic genius father Elgie works for Microsoft while her slightly eccentric mother Bernadette lives an almost reclusive life in their giant old house that was once a girls’ reform school. Bernadette doesn’t fit in with the other parents, or the “gnats” as she refers to them, and she doesn’t want to.
When Bee suggests a trip to Antarctica as her reward for graduating 8th-grade with excellent grades, and her parents agree, she’s pleasantly surprised. Plans are made and bags are packed, but one day, after a series of mishaps and arguments between Bernadette and Elgie and Bernadette and the “gnats,” Bernadette disappears.
Bee works to put together the pieces of her mother’s mysterious disappearance through emails and letters, police reports and receipts, and she ends up learning there is much more to her mother than she once believed.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is both engrossing and deeply funny. An epistolary novel composed primarily of letters and transcripts the reader must put together the pieces of Bernadette’s disappearance alongside Bee. Semple expertly builds suspense and intrigue while also poking fun of both the letter-writers and the world they inhabit. The slightly unhinged ramblings of PTA moms are hysterical and the antics of background characters in audio transcripts or police reports provide amusing asides. Semple’s experience as a TV writer shows in that the plot does not suffer from the trappings novels of this format sometimes fall into; Semple knows how to “show” the readers what is happening primarily through dialogue and brief interactive scenes.
Semple has written a satirical mystery that feels refreshingly unique. The style does not feel gimmicky and instead provides the perfect format in which to provide social commentary through dry humor reminiscent of British works.
The novels’ weaknesses are minimal but more apparent toward the end when the letter format switches to Bee’s narration; while it is still well-written and engaging, it feels a bit rushed. Yet even while the ending is slightly anti-climactic, it almost adds to the almost absurdist humor of it.
Semple’s novel is perfect for those in need of a quick, engaging read and a good laugh at life. (★★★★☆)