My wife Carla has been reading some excellent books in her book salon. One of them was Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, which I reviewed here. More recently, she handed me her copy of Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, and told me I was going to love it, and she was right! It's a tremendously entertaining work of social satire combined with a mystery that kept me wondering what would happen next right up to the end.
Bernadette Fox lives with her husband, Elgie, in Seattle. Twenty years ago, Elgie and Bernadette lived in Los Angeles. Elgie had been an animator and Bernadette had been an up-and-coming architect. But then two things happened: Elgie sold his company to Microsoft, and Bernadette suffered a terrible event. Now they live in a decrepit old house (that used to be a home for wayward girls) on a hill in Seattle with their daughter Bee, who attends Galer Street, an expensive private school filled with the kids of Microsoft's top managers.
Bernadette doesn't like the other Galer Street parents. In fact, she doesn't like anyone besides Bee and Manjula, her 75-cents-an-hour virtual assistant from India who performs all manner of tasks for the agoraphobic and antisocial Bernadette. In turn, the other parents despise Bernadette for her aloofness and refusal to volunteer at Bee's school. And Elgie offers little support: he's too busy heading a project that he thinks will change the world, and the fact that many other people think so (he gave the 4th most watched TED Talk in history about his creation, called Samantha 2), allows him to justify his 80-hour workweeks.
Author Maria Semple tells the story through email messages between school parents, emails from Bernadette to her assistant Manjula, psychiatric evaluations, and other Internet communications, interspersed with notes from Bee. There's a reason the story is presented this way, which readers discover near the end of the book. We also learn the terrible secret of what happened to Bernadette in Los Angeles, and why she suddenly disappeared the day before she was supposed to go on a vacation with Elgie and Bee to Antarctica.
One of my favorite things about Where'd You Go, Bernadette, besides the entertaining characters and takedown of private-school/TED/Microsoft culture, was the sheer unpredictability of the story. I had no idea what I was in store from one scene to the next. But everything tied together, and as a stickler for satisfying endings, Where'd You Go, Bernadette nailed it.