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Fiction Quirkiness drives the story of ‘Bernadette’

  • Published Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, at 11:31 p.m.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” by Maria Semple (Little, Brown and Company, 336 pages, $25.99)

St. Bernadette reportedly had 18 visions, and Bernadette Fox, protagonist of Maria Semple’s newest novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” has set her sights just as high. She even wears a locket with the saint’s image engraved on its front. Bernadette, however, doesn’t aim for visions of holiness; she attempts new visions in architectural design.

Her designing genius does not go unnoticed by her peers, and her unique ideas (the 20-Mile House, built with materials sourced no farther than 20 miles from the site) garner her respect and adoration from her accolades for decades.

But Bernadette falls into near-recluse status in a ruined boarding-house-turned-home on the outskirts of the tech-savvy city of Seattle with her husband and tech genius, Elgin Branch, and their precocious teenage daughter, Balakrishna, called Bee.

The relationship between Bee and Bernadette is effortless; the two understand each other without having to explain motives. The relationship between Bee and her father: stilted. For weeks, Bernadette works to make Bee’s dream come true. Bee wants to visit Antarctica in celebration of her spectacular performance in school.

Undaunted by their daughter’s request — they thought she would ask for a pony — Bernadette sets out to plan the best trip ever, and price is not an issue.

Her means of planning, however, are far from conventional. Bernadette employs an online assistant to make many of the arrangements, even going so far as to give the faceless assistant passwords, Social Security numbers and banking information. And when the assistant isn’t preparing for the family’s expedition, Bernadette uses her to schedule dental appointments.

Composed of narrative sections, e-mails, letters and federal documents, the novel has an unyielding pace. As Bee and Bernadette plan their trip to Antarctica, the reader navigates the ups and downs of their lives.

Bee seeks to understand her mother’s reclusive behaviors — she’s not like other private-school moms. Bernadette longs for authentic companionship and the kind of passion she had for the projects she completed in her earlier life. Elgin, the stereotypical and moderately emotionless tech-y savant, just wants the woman he married 14 years ago to rekindle her passion for … anything.

The romp that ensues throughout Semple’s sophomore novel is cleverly crafted, and allows the reader to develop strong ties to the author’s masterfully drawn though quirky characters.

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