The first three-fourth of the story is a series of correspondence as in e-mails, letters, live blogs, magazines, articles, faxes and legal and medical transcripts all wired together by a 15-year old Bee Branch in an attempt to narrate the story of her mother Bernadette.
Bernadette was once a renowned architect who has been awarded with “MacArthur Genius Grant” for one of her designs, “20 Mile House” – The house was completely built by materials found within a 20-mile radius from the site. When the project that was near and dear to her heart was unfairly destroyed, her mind began to fray. She began to live a secluded life withdrawn from society and her passion.
Elgie Branch, father of Bee is a tech titan working in Microsoft and famed for giving the 4th most watched TED talk.
Being agoraphobic, Bernadette outsources her responsibilities to a virtual assistant, Manjula Kapoor from India. She tosses all the tasks to Manjula in a way to minimize contact with the outside world.
Bee was born early and sick with a congenital heart condition. Bernadette devotes her heart and life completely in bringing up her daughter. As Bee gets smashing straight A’s in her academics, she expects her parents to take her on a trip to Antarctica.
Going to Antarctica involves crossing one of the roughest and the most feared water in the world. Bernadette contemplates, “The only way to get to Antarctica is by cruise ship. Even the smallest one has 150 passengers which translates into me being trapped with 149 other people who will uniquely annoy the hell out of me with their rudeness, waste, idiotic questions, incessant yammering, creepy food requests, boring small talk, etc. Or worse, they might turn their curiosity toward me, and expect pleasantry in return. I’m getting a panic attack just thinking about it”.
Their neighbor Audrey declares a war on Bernadette every chance she gets.
Meanwhile, an FBI agent, Marcus Strang informs Elgie that there is no Manjula and it is an alias for an identity-theft ring operating out of Russia. And the ring now has the family’s personal financial information, including bank account numbers and all the rest. Elgie and Bernadette are on the verge of being wiped out.
All these sends Bernadette’s anxiety skyrocketing. Elgie Branch was very much concerned about Bernadette’s paranoia. So, he along with the psychologist named Dr. Kurtz attempt to stage an intervention that would place Bernadette in a mental health facility. It makes Bernadette to run off leaving everyone with a question “Where’d you go, Bernadette”
As days pass, with every attempt to find her failing, everyone concludes she is dead except for Bee who tricks her father to go to Antarctica claiming that with this previously planned family trip, she would find some closure. But it is actually an elaborate ploy to find her mom. Read the rest of the story to find “Where’d actually Bernadette go?”
The story is fast-paced. The correspondences are neatly strung. Maria Semple has managed to include many informative and interesting facts along the storyline – About last days of Beatles, About Antarctica, etc.
Through all the madness, the affection shared between Bernadette and Bee is warm.
Maria Semple is a screenplay writer for shows like “Arrested Development”, “Mad about you”, etc.