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Book Worm: 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' offers delightful dysfunction, adventure

By Kathleen Duncan
Dec. 25, 2013 at 6:25 a.m.


"Where'd You Go, Bernadette" by Maria Semple is a hilariously quirky rendition of a dysfunctional family in Seattle. Bernadette lives in a crumbling home with her genius husband, Elgin, who works at Microsoft, and her loving daughter, Bee.

Bernadette used to be a revolutionary architect in Los Angeles, but after a disaster with her project, she moves to Seattle to hide and pull herself together. Though she means to restore their decrepit home as a way to get back on her architectural feet, she ends up leaving it to crumble more into ruin instead. And with the aid of some bad luck, wild choices and a crazy mom at school, she too, begins to fall apart.

Bernadette's downward spiral begins to gather speed when Bee gets perfect grades on her report card and they plan a family trip to Antarctica. Bernadette, experiencing full-blown social anxiety, doesn't sleep and uses her online personal assistant out of India to book their vacation and make purchases so she doesn't have to face people out in the world.

As the trip gets closer, Bernadette is unsure how she will face going to Antarctica when she can't even make a call to the local restaurant to make a dinner reservation for the holiday.

As Bernadette battles her inner demons, she also deals with craziness from others. A mom at her daughter's school is completely nuts, accusing Bernadette of running over her foot in her car, sneaking onto Bernadette's property to cut out her blackberry bushes (a first step in a wildly funny confrontation that ends with no injuries but lots of property damage) and generally makes Bernadette's daily struggles much harder with her trivial issues and overblown complaints.

Bernadette is a great character. She handles just about everything with a sense of humor and flair. Despite all her personal problems, she tries to focus on the most important aspect of her life, her daughter Bee.

Bee is incredible. She is smart, accomplished, loves to help other children at school and is excited to go to boarding school the following year. She cheers on her mother's odd antics and humorous confrontations with full support and compassion. They're best friends.

One day, when Bernadette's father, an FBI agent and a psychiatrist all end up confronting her together in a complicated climax of events, Bernadette goes missing.

Bee, heartbroken but determined, sets off to find her mother, using emails, Post-Its, confidential FBI papers and her own smarts to bring her mother home.

"Where'd You Go, Bernadette" is a sweet and zany novel about a woman and the confluence of events that lead to her disappearance. Her story is funny, touching and surprising throughout.

As we watch the complicated and absurd plot unfold, we cannot help but be hopeful that Bernadette will find her way back to her family, her love of architecture and, ultimately, herself.

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