Book Review: Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”

Where’d You Go, Bernadette had been on my to-read list for months now since the day I found out that it was short-listed for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction, an award that celebrates women’s writing the world over. I’ve read and immensely enjoyed Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl sometime late last year, and that novel was part of the same award’s long list so I thought Bernadette would give me the same experience. Besides, I also needed a funny read to cleanse my palate for the next batch of YA novels I am about to read.

Lo and behold, Bernadette went beyond my expectations.

Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette

It’s hard to summarize Bernadette without trivializing the whole storyline. It’s not because it’s a complicated book, which it was not, but more because summarizing it would be compounding the whole novel into just one plot, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette is so much more than “just one simple plot.” I don’t want to betray the story so I’ll borrow the back cover blurb.

“When fifteen-year-old Bee claims a family trip to Antartica as a reward for perfect grades, her fiercely intelligent but agoraphobic mother, Bernadette, throws herself into preparations for the trip. Worn down by years of trying to live the Seattle life she never wanted, Bernadette is on the brink of a meltdown. As disaster follows disaster, she disappears, leaving her family to pick up the pieces.”

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a layered narrative but when you zoom into its core, it is a story about a mother and daughter’s love for each other.

Bernadette Fox is an enigma. No one seems to know her fully. For Elgin Branch, Bernadette is his erratic, creative, genius but troubled wife. For the other mothers of Galer Street School, she’s the reclusive, unhelpful and self-righteous queen of Straight Gate. To the design world, she’s a pioneer, a revolutionary architect. But to Bee Branch, she’s simply “Mom” and it seems like the most accurate depiction of Bernadette.

 Maria Semple successfully showed us just how strong and all-encompassing Bernadette’s and Bee’s love for each other was without being dramatic. I’ve read other novels about family relationships and most of them are heavily laden with drama, so this, Bernadette, was a breath of fresh air. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is actually hilarious mainly because of Bee’s and Bernadette’s snarkiness. Semple also managed to poke fun at Seattle, self-help culture and America’s private school system.

Other readers may find the book’s format a bit weird but it’s actually one of the things I like best about this novel. It is unconventional, yes, but it also allowed the characters to fully unfold. Readers got to know Soo-Lin, Audrey, Elgin, Bee and, most especially, Bernadette from all directions through memos, letters, emails and other documents, and that, being able to know the characters, builds this strong connection with readers. At least, that’s true in my case.I love Bernadette and Bee immediately and hated Soo-Lin throughout the book. Elgin and Audrey surprised me at the latter parts of the novel.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is definitely a must read whatever genre you love. It’s funny and heart-warming. I definitely recommend it.

Rating: 5/5