Where’d you go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

bernadette

I’ve heard a lot about this book lately, and when I saw it going for less than the price of a magazine in Tesco, I snapped it up for a bit of light reading. The premise sounded fascinating; Bernadette, a middle aged wife and mother, goes missing from her Seattle home. After her disappearance, a paper trail of emails and other correspondence written by her and various people who impact on her life are strung together with narration from her teenage daughter Bee to gradually reveal the true Bernadette and the reasons for her disappearance. It promised to be an interesting, modern take on the epistolary novel, and an exploration of the pressures of contemporary society, all while not being too intellectually demanding. Perfect for a busy teacher who is desperate for her summer holiday!

On many levels, I enjoyed the reading experience immensely. The nature of the book’s structure means that you are given a range of tantalising snippets of seemingly random information, and at first it seems as if the dots will never connect. What has a school fundraiser got to do with a woman’s disappearance? Why am I reading an invoice to a gardener for blackberry vine removal? It’s all so pleasurably frustrating! Feeling like Nancy Drew, I raced on, desperate to fit the pieces together and create an overall picture of Bernadette’s life and why the people around her disliked her so much. For dislike her they do. Ashley and Soo-Lin are mothers at Bee’s school, and they hate Bernadette because she is aloof and totally uninterested in the volunteering that all parents are expected to sign up for. They cannot understand why she doesn’t want to become involved in their community, or why she lives in such a ramshackle house when her husband is one of the most highly paid executives at Microsoft. Bernadette, however, couldn’t care less what they think. There are hints that she had a glamorous and successful past in LA, but now she barely leaves her house as she despises Seattle, which she dismisses as being full of hippy do-gooders. The mysterious Bernadette’s rants are hilarious and the whiny and childish Ashley is a perfect villainess. Soo-Lin is brilliantly drippy, and Bernadette’s husband and daughter are likeable and warm.

However, once you reach the middle, it all starts to get a bit soggy around the edges. As characters are revealed on a deeper level, and the reasons for Bernadette’s behaviour become clearer, the essential weakness of the book reveals itself. Bernadette is not a likeable character, and the justifications for her selfish and frankly irritating actions are far too weak to enable the reader to empathise with her. There are plenty of interesting events in Bernadette’s past that could have been explored, but Semple has not developed these fully enough and the epistolary structure prevents her from providing sufficient emotional gravitas to her character. As such, I didn’t care about Bernadette or find her behaviour believable, much of the plot was left hanging off in mid air with no real bearing on the central story, and the whole thing rapidly descends into farce, with the end leaving a rather bitter taste in my mouth.

This is a novel that tries too hard to be clever and sophisticated, and gets so caught up in its own intricacies that it forgets the basic tenets of good story writing; a convincing plot and engaging characters. It is also very location-specific; much of the novel centres around the cultures of Seattle and Microsoft, and if, like me, you have never visited or worked in these locations, much of the humour is lost. After all of the hype, I was expecting something special with Where’d you go, Bernadette?, but instead I found it to be distinctly average. Due to its weak characterisation and plot, what should have been a witty and inventive portrayal of the struggles modern professional women face became a rather trite and unconvincing mess. At least it was a quick read. And the cover is lovely!

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24 comments

  1. It’ll make a fun movie, which I think is what the author is hoping for. She’s a very successful writer of TV sitcoms. I was practically casting the film in my head as I read. In any event, I’d much rather see a film version of this than Gone Girl.

  2. I was really enjoying this but, like you, thought it tailed off terribly at the end. Thought it was going to be a really good summer read, but it’s only okay-ish. But as AJ says, it’s better than Gone Girl.

  3. Completely agree about this being a book that tries too hard to be cleverer than it really is, something that always seems to be a danger with modern epistolary-style novels. I tried reading it and gave up around the midway point. However, I adore the cover design.

  4. I am so happy to read your review! Other reviews have not reflected my opinion of this book at all. I have been listening to this as an audiobook. . . .forever and forever. In the opening chapters, the satire seemed a little heavy handed but amusing. Once the author started telling the story of Bernadette’s life in LA, it just was sad. I have just finished reading about the trip to Antarctica. I feel that I’m too far along to quit. Sigh. But I do have Romantic Moderns here, and it is very interesting.

  5. I’ve been reading mixed reviews about this one and was wondering if it would be worth my time, with my Summer vacation coming up (hurrah!). I’m glad I’ve read your review, I don’t think I’ll bother now as there are so many great books out there waiting to be read.

  6. I’ve been so interested in the fact that nobody seems to like Bernadette. Frankly, I liked her a lot. She’s apparently a bit bipolar, but her backstory was intriguing to me and I found her fascinatingly three-dimensional and very touching. And I just loved the way everything went spectacularly to shit.

  7. I enjoyed it immensely, it’s sharp and some of the satirical detail is spot on. I agree, she is looking for a movie option, without a doubt. She writes for Arrested Development and it shows!

  8. I was getting ready to buy this on the strength of the first few paragraphs of your review. Luckily I read on before hitting the buy button.

  9. I absolutely loved this book. There are so many fascinating little details and so much to find funny! I didn’t dislike Bernadette at all. I found it inspiring to see someone staying true to their own quirky, unusual self. I work for a large corporate organisation where this can be difficult sometimes. I loved the management speak send-up near the start of the book, the account of the freakish mudslide at the parents’ gathering and the fact that B glides through all the pettiness and ugliness. I loved her daughter’s resilience and determination. This is my book to beat this year and I hope more people get to discover its joys.

  10. Je l’ai lu en français sous le titre “Bernadette a disparu” et ai bien aimé ce livre. Je trouve également la première partie meilleure que la seconde.

  11. Blimey, I’ve come late to this book (given by a close friend) and I completely disagree. Comedy is pretty much the hardest genre to pull off and nine jokes out of ten Semple pulls it off. Too clever? Is that really a problem? In a bid bad world of dumb and dreary and feel-good I loved Semple’s wit and intelligence and admired the fact she didn’t feel she had to make her characters sympathetic. Are Basil and Sybil Fawlty nice? I know next to nothing about Seattle, but loved the Canada and Microsoft jokes. I thought the writing was right up there with Kate Atkinson’s and Marina Lewycka’s as smart, funny, painful, spiky and true (emotionally).

  12. Just finished reading it last night. I came back online to read reviews because I wondered if I’d read them correctly the first time when they said it was a “must read.” Did reputable critics think this was a good book? The first half was witty I’ll give it that. But honestly I had to drag myself through the second half. And character development just got embarrassing. The Ted reference got so old. She’d been such a brilliant architect – so overblown and grandiose -

  13. Hi! Love this review. If you had to write several detailed themes for this novel what would they be? I loved this book but I have to discuss themes in book club and I’m blanking! Also would you be able to explain the themes in this novel? thanks

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