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!