You're not too old for this fun novel

By Nicky Pellegrino

Adults of all ages will love this comic cleverness, writes Nicky Pellegrino.

Book cover of Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Photo / Supplied

When I was growing up there was no such thing as "young adult" fiction. You read kids' books until eventually you moved on to adult ones. Consequently, I find it difficult to decide what falls within the genre.

With its bright cover and teenage genius hero, Where'd You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple (W&N, $39.99), may be aimed at the younger market but its themes seem fairly adult and the humour is often quite sophisticated, so who can tell.

One thing is certain, whether it's aimed at young or old, this is a very funny book. It begins with the disappearance of Bernadette Fox. Her sparky 15-year-old daughter, Bee, sets out to discover all she can about her mum, compiling a missing person dossier of emails and documents. The story is told mostly through these fragments as well as extracts from Bee's journal.

I'll admit I don't always get on with novels with a bitsy structure like this. However, while the hodgepodge of reports, emails, press releases, articles, invoices and school newsletters do build into a story, it's Bee's voice that really makes things flow.

Peppy and outspoken, she's a heroine it's a pleasure to spend time with.

Anyway, it transpires that Bernadette is a radical architect who's had a breakdown after a professional catastrophe and moved with her Microsoft wunderkind husband, Elgie, to a wreck of a house in Seattle where she's at war with the neighbours and the other school mums, despite hardly ever leaving her home.

Bernadette is a mess, yet her daughter adores her. Things go from bad to worse when she agrees to a family trip to Antarctica and sets about organising it with the help of her virtual assistant in India. That's when Elgie begins to seriously fear for his wife's mental health and plans an intervention. The FBI become involved, neighbours machinate, colleagues plot - it's a delicious high farce during which Semple gets to sink her satirical bite into everything from major corporates and posh schools to therapists.

With a 15-year career writing for shows such as Ellen, Mad About You and Arrested Development, Semple knows all about creating great screwball comedy. There's a particularly amusing series of emails between Bernadette's crazy neighbour and Elgie's predatory assistant. She can pace a story; ratcheting the hysteria then creating calm for poignancy. And she's produced likeable if incredible characters.

Where'd You Go Bernadette is a brilliantly inventive, dark comedy with a baseline of acerbic social commentary. Entirely unpredictable, a real page-turner, and in places laugh-out-loud funny, I think this one is going to be a hit with adults young or old who are looking for a book to delight them and don't have an issue with plots verging on the ridiculous. For them it's recommended.

- Herald on Sunday

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