Bernadette is an eccentric architect who was once seen as so promising that she received the MacArthur Genius Grant for designing and building a house affectionately known as the Twenty Mile House for the fact that everything in it came from within twenty miles of the property. It was hailed as a breakthrough in green construction. But something awful happened. We find out what that awful thing was, but not for a long time, but whatever it was has caused her to spend the next several years hiding away in an equally eccentric former girls’ reformatory in Seattle that stands in rather poorly for a house for her; her husband Elgin, who is the rising star at Microsoft; and their daughter Bee, an ingenious tweenager who wants nothing more in the world than to visit Antarctica.
It’s Bee’s raging desire to see the South Pole (though she would object to that term, explaining that tourists can’t actually ever see the real South Pole) that sets the dizzyingly entertaining tale of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? in motion. Elgin, who is working on a huge, mysterious project with the code name Samantha 2, and Bernadette, who is so burnt out and cynical that she calls all the fellow parents at Bee’s school gnats and does much of her communication with the outside world through a virtual assistant from India named Manjula, agree to take Bee on her dream trip as a reward for outstanding grades.
Part of the fun factor of this book is the sheer number of plot twists that take place by the end. Practically everything you think you know about most of the characters gets turned on its ear by the end. But a larger portion of what I enjoyed was the unique form in which the story is told. The first three-fourths of the book is made up of correspondence (letters, emails, text messages, etc.), notes, police reports, and meeting transcripts rather than being a straightforward story with a narrator. At the point where the traditional narrative takes up, it is from the point of view of Bee, who has apparently received all the items that made up the previous material in the book and put it together in the book the audience is reading. It was a real meta moment when I read a series of emails between two characters talking about sending a pack of notes to Bee, who was turning them into a book and realized that the very book they were discussing was the one I was reading.
This book was a truly fun read. It was at times laugh-out-loud funny. My favorite scene was when a house that is located just down the hill from Bernadette’s property, is destroyed by a mudslide just as the folks who live there are having a recruiting party for potential students at the school Bee attends. For reasons that make perfect sense in the story but are way too convoluted to explain quickly, the owner of the house blames Bernadette and completely loses her mind, flipping out at both Bernadette and Bee. The funniest part, though, is the letter from the school psychologist to all the parents talking about how to deal with the inevitable PTSD from which their children will suffer as a result of the disaster.
But that’s not to say the book is a comedy. It is also at times highly emotional and poignant. We find that Bernadette isn’t just an eccentric. She has some pretty serious psychological damage to deal with. And the family’s complete lack of ability to communicate honestly doesn’t make that easy. It finally takes a true disaster—Bernadette has gone missing and may be dead—for them to address what is really wrong.
Read this book. You’ll laugh. Loudly. I startled my students a couple of times during sustained silent reading time. You also just might cry a little. And even get angry a few times. And you’ll enjoy yourself the whole time.