Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a first novel by Maria Semple, narrated by Kathleen Wilhoite, is a audiobook bargain at $14.98. It came highly recommended around the blogosphere, but at first the story seemed too self-consciously quirky and to hold back an annoying amount of information. I also thought the narrator’s voice for fifteen-year-old Bee (who tells a large portion of the story in her own words) would irritate me. (It seemed too babyish, and I kept thinking Bee was ten years old or so until something reminded me she was a teenager was planning to go to boarding school the next year.) The volume level from one character’s voice to another’s seemed to vary more widely than usual, too – screeches and yells bursting into my ear at high volume and then low conversational tones – so that I found myself adjusting the volume up and down.
But after an hour or so, I settled in and enjoyed Kathleen Wilhoite’s enthusiasm and liveliness. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is her first audiobook narration. It’s also the first one I’ve listened to where the narrator can actually sing. There is one scene in the story where Bee hears the song Holy Night sung at a concert and the author quotes a couple of verses and the chorus as Bee listens, rapt. Kathleen Wilhoite sings the whole thing beautifully, instead of reading the lyrics aloud as I’ve heard other narrators do. She even nails that impossibly high note while having to keep the volume restrained.
Along with Bee’s point of view, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a compilation of documents such as report cards, email correspondence, FBI files, magazine articles, and transcripts of recorded conversations, that slowly come together to form a complete picture of the missing Bernadette — who from one viewpoint is an artistic genius architect, from another a depressed agoraphobe, and from yet another, a crazy recluse and neglectful mother. The fragmented narrative structure can make the story seem to jump around a bit, as it shows readers the same event from several angles. Patience is required from the reader before all the bits of information begin to cohere.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette has a lot of references to Microsoft – where Bernadette’s husband works as a software developer/genius – and to Seattle, where Bee attends the progressive Gaylor Street School. Excerpts from Bee’s latest Gaylor Street School report card appear at the start of the book:
“Bee is a pure delight. Her love of learning is infectious, as are her kindness and humor.”
“Bee is unafraid to ask questions. Her goal is always deep understanding of a given topic.”
Bee’s excellent report card leads her to ask her parents if they remember their long-ago promise to give her whatever she wanted for a graduation gift if she gets perfect grades all the way through school. (“I do remember,” says Bernadette, weakly. “It was to ward off further talk of a pony.”) Bee excitedly requests a family trip to Antarctica. The mere idea practically sends agoraphobic Bernadette off the deep end. But, loving Bee, and wanting to honor her promise, Bernadette begins to plan for the trip, enlisting the help of a virtual personal assistant in India. Through the documents presented in the book, readers see Bernadette’s panic grow as the date for departure looms, and the once close-knit family begins to break apart under the strain.
If you liked Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, a quirky quest story out of San Francisco about Google and books, you might also like Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which has a quirky daughter on a quest to understand what happened to her quirky mother, with insider jokes about Microsoft and Seattle (minus the fantasy elements of MP24HB.) The humor in Where’d You Go, Bernadette also reminded me of the light/dark humor in The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, with its family dynamic of borderline-crazy parents and resourceful children.
For a chuckle, watch the book trailer of the author (a screenwriter for the TV show Arrested Development) as she tries to explain to booksellers, critics, fellow authors, and random people on the street what Where’d You Go, Bernadette is about.
Listen to an excerpt from Where’d You Go, Bernadette from Hachette Audio here.
Read the AudioFile review of Where’d You Go, Bernadette here.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Wilhoite, Kathleen (narr.)
9.5 hours on 9 CDs
$14.98 US/$16.50 CAN
Disclosure: I borrowed this audiobook from the public library.
Other opinions on the audiobook edition of Where’d You Go, Bernadette (all excellent):
Care’s Online Book Club
A Library of One’s Own
That’s What She Read
You’ve Gotta Read This