Book: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Reviewer: Bethany and Jeriann

Age/Genre: Comedy Novel for YA or Adults

Preferred Reading Environment: Read it somewhere with lots of character, like a converted school bus!

Reading Accoutrements: Keep your virtual assistant on speed dial in case you decide to go on a cruise, too 😉

Content Notes: There are a lot of references to mental health (some resolved and some left unresolved in this novel) and the way it is handled in society. This book also shows unorthodox parenting methods in a pretty even-handed way, but if you have a background involving abandonment or narcissistic parents, be aware that subject is present.

Jeriann: I’d seen Where’d You Go, Bernadette on the shelves at Hastings many times before I actually decided to buy it. The light blue cover and stylistic face on the cover caught my attention. The plot looked fun and interesting, but I just wasn’t ready to pay $12 for it.

Bethany: I purchased Where’d You Go, Bernadette on Kindle at the recommendation of my cousin. I had heard lots of good things about the book and was even intrigued by the description, but I didn’t want to buy it until someone I knew and trusted said it was worth the time and money. My cousin’s recommendation did the trick.

Somehow, we ended up talking about this book and since we agreed it looked good, we decided to take the plunge and read it at the same time.

Jeriann: I lucked out, since Hastings went out of business, so I got this comedic gem for clearance prices! Yay!

Where’d You Go, Bernadette follows the quirky Branch family in the Pacific Northwest. Our characters include:

  • Elgin (Dad): a tech genius who works for Microsoft, occasional dad and harried husband
  • Bernadette (Mom): a reclusive architect disliked by private school moms and neighbors
  • Bee (Daughter): a 15-year-old misfit attending private school

The book begins with Bernadette missing and 15-year-old Bee struggling to come to terms with her mother’s disappearance. Bee received a mysterious packet of correspondence in the mail, revealing her mother’s former success as an architect, Bernadette’s anxiety about being in public and dealing with PTA moms who constantly judge her (specifically a neighbor named Audrey), and Elgin’s brief affair with a woman from work named Soo-Lin.

Through Bernadette’s correspondence, some transcripts, and Bee’s narration to fill in the gaps, we start to get a picture of the family’s erratic life. Being a well-off family in Seattle, the Branch clan has to deal with the daily realities of snooty private school parent associations, HOAs, and other bureaucracies that Bernadette, with her myriad anxieties, just does not have the composure for.

Throughout the novel, we learn that Bernadette used to be a successful architect, even winning the MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Now, she outsources as much of her life as she can to a virtual assistant named Manjula.

Bethany: Bernadette is basically a hot mess of a person. She has allowed her fear of people hating her work prevent her from accomplishing anything professionally since her one claim to fame – the house she used the MacArthur “Genius” Grant to build – was destroyed by its owner. That fear bled into her personal life so much that she barely leaves her house and has trouble dealing with the day-to-day of the family’s existence in Seattle. She relies on Manjula to do basic things like order her groceries and dry cleaning, correspond with doctors, and even plan the family trip to Antarctica.

Jeriann: Because the story is narrated by Bernadette’s daughter, we are able to see multiple sides of Bernadette and how her actions affect others. Through a lot of the book, I loved Bernadette’s quirkiness, but there is also a very real sense that she is not functioning well at all. This is not a romanticized version of “great art always comes from suffering”- this is a pretty realistic picture of how extreme anxiety affects all aspects of a person’s life.

Bethany: Meanwhile, Elgin has moved the family to a new place in order to cultivate his own success in a field where he can dominate. He feels some pressure to do as well as Bernadette had done before her breakdown in order to maintain the lifestyle – Bee’s private school education, the large house in a fancy neighborhood, etc. – they now have. His frustration with his family’s current situation – Bernadette’s inability to assimilate with the other moms at Bee’s school and Bee’s resultant difficulties – is the primary reason he makes bad decisions that only serve to exacerbate the situation further. (I’m not saying it’s Bernadette’s fault that he makes bad decisions; those are entirely on his head.)

Jeriann: Bernadette and Elgin are both shown as very smart, talented, and flawed people. Even though they both make mistakes, you can see for the most part that they are not ill-intentioned. The different documents and correspondences show many people’s perspectives and a sense that there isn’t always a “right” answer in life.

Bethany: Let’s not leave Bee out of this. She is a young girl struggling to understand the reason that her mother has disappeared. It makes it harder for her to fit in and focus on her education. Let’s face it, if your closest family member disappeared, you’d wonder why it was so important for you to finish reading Moby Dick, too.

Jeriann: When we first read this, I remember both of us noting that Bee is a surprisingly well-written teenage girl. She’s really smart for her age, but she is still ruled by uncertainty and hormones. She’s easily excited by new experiences, has a pretty quick-to-act imagination, and is suggestible. For instance, there’s a scene where Bee attends a charismatic church service with her friend. She is completely drawn into the atmosphere and feels like there is suddenly a meaning to life. I remember feeling that way when I was that age, and I think that the author’s choice to show both her intelligence and her naivete results in a balance that you don’t always see in teenage characters.

Bethany: I really hated the way that scene ended, because Bee “felt the Holy Spirit” so-to-speak without grasping any spiritual meaning from the experience. She was so caught up in the crowd that I was reminded of the terrible stories you hear about mob mentality and the consequences of such an overwhelming atmosphere. It made me feel gross.

Jeriann: Speaking of gross, at first, I hated the character of Audrey. She seemed mean and gross inside, picking fights with Bernadette for no reason. But throughout the novel, her character was revealed more, and she ends up helping out Bee and Bernadette in the end. She becomes almost as well-rounded as our main cast, having legitimate motivations for her behavior.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a fun read that dealt with serious issues. The characters and situations are pretty over-the-top, but it still feels like a plot that could feasibly happen in our world. The interactions between characters are usually witty and entertaining. The depiction of Seattle’s upper-class is light-heartedly critical, poking fun at eccentricities while still showing humanity.

It’s also a fairly fast read; we both read this book in less than a day. That’s partly because the language isn’t dense and partly because the story will sweep you up and spit you out. It’s a book you won’t want to put down.

What’s the last book you read in less than a day? Let us know so we can check out those quick, engaging reads!

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