“Where’d You Go Bernadette” is a quirky, fun read. The story is told mostly through the eyes of the smart and talented 15-year-old Bee Branch, who is the only child of Elgin Branch and Bernadette Fox, who live in the Northwest. The family is unconventional but has a routine that seems to work for them until Bee is promised a family trip to Antarctica that throws the family into one problem after another.
Bee attends Galer Street School, a private school in Seattle. Her mom used to work as an architect, and her father is a research and development guru at Microsoft. Their home is a former Catholic girls school in need of repair. Bernadette is a bit of a recluse and avoids getting involved at Bee’s school. Elgin is preoccupied with work, especially with the unveiling of a new product he invented, and he leaves family affairs to Bernadette. Bee has been accepted to a boarding school on the East Coast, where her mom went.
Problems begin when Bernadette’s neighbor, a self-important organizer named Audrey Griffin, plans to host a brunch for parents to discuss how to make Galer Street School more upscale and attractive to influential parents. Audrey is sprucing up her house and finds out that blackberry vines invading her yard are from the Branches’ yard. Audrey tries to talk to Bernadette when she is picking up Bee at school, but Bernadette, trying to avoid Audrey, accidentally runs over Audrey’s foot. Audrey arranges to have her yard person remove Bernadette’s vines while Bernadette is out, but Bernadette comes home and finds them trespassing on her lawn. Bernadette agrees to have the vines removed but has a large sign made with red letters that says “Private Property No Trespassing Galer Street Gnats will be Arrested and Hauled Off to Gnat Jail. “
Bernadette also is getting anxious over the family trip to Antarctica. She hires an online assistant from India to help her order items for the trip, make dinner reservations and just be a confidant - all unknown to her husband. She is especially worried about seasickness. Her husband happens to see her through the pharmacy window falling asleep with a fishing vest while getting a prescription filled for an anxiety medication. He worries that something is troubling her because her behavior has been increasingly erratic.
When Audrey has her perfectly catered lunch meeting with entertainment from kindergartners, events don’t go quite as planned. Rain has saturated the area, and the excavation of the blackberry vines causes masses of “thick mud, watery mud, rocky mud” to flow downhill into Audrey’s house, sending the approximately 50 guests screaming from the lunch. Elgin, meanwhile, is emailing psychiatry professionals because he is worried about Bernadette’s mental health. He finds out about Bernadette’s online assistant and learns that he works for a shell company run by a Russian crime syndicate whose goal is to steal the family’s Social Security and credit card information.
Elgin stages an intervention with his own assistant from Microsoft to have Bernadette involuntary committed, and then Bernadette disappears. Bee gets upset with her father and thinks he is the reason her mom left.
The situation isn’t as dire as it seems. Far from it. It’s filled with zany twists and turns that make it humorous and enjoyable and leaves readers wondering what else might befall the Branches.
The author, Maria Semple, was a screenwriter for the TV shows “Mad About You,” “Ellen” and “Arrested Development.”