A crazy woman, a trip to Antarctica, a mysterious disappearance, and boarding school drama? It sounds like the makings of an amazing, if slightly unusual read. Unfortunately, Where’d You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple was far from either of those things in my opinion.
Bernadette is a little unhinged (and that’s putting it nicely). But then again, so are her busybody neighbors, for entirely different reasons. A once renowned architect, Bernadette suffered a horrific injustice that left her reeling and ultimately causes her to give up the California architecture scene. Through an accumulation of letters, emails, conversations, and diary entries, a picture of Bernadette’s current sad agoraphobic existence after fleeing her former life comes together piece by piece. She lives in a falling apart eyesore of a building with her husband and daughter, Bee. Unlike Bernadette, Bee has a truly adventurous spirit, and isn’t afraid of putting herself out there.
Considering the Bernadette we know is more of a recluse than a traveler, quite shockingly Bee somehow convinces her parents to take her to Antarctica for her good grades. Sidenote: what a gift! I think all I ever got for good grades was trip to get ice cream. Not that I particularly want to go to Antarctica, but South America would be nice. I am still in grad school, so if you are reading this mom and dad, there’s still time… just sayin’. I won’t hold my breath though. Unsurprisingly, as the date draws closer, Bernadette, desperate to get out of going on this trip she probably (definitely) shouldn’t have agreed to in the first place, begins acting erratically, leaving her husband increasingly convinced that she is going crazy. That is, crazier than her usual brand of crazy. He decides to stage an intervention and then take Bee to Antarctica himself. Yet, the day of the intervention, Bernadette simply disappears, hence the title, Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Considering I didn’t like Bernadette in the first place, I couldn’t care less about where she went. Yes, I think what happened to her back when she was still practicing architecture was horrible, but at some point you just have to get your act together and move on with life, right? I think the book would have been more aptly named, “Good Riddance, Bernadette!” But that’s just me. I suppose Bee has more of an emotional connection to her, considering she is her daughter. But since I personally didn’t give two hoots about the main premise of the book (i.e., finding Bernadette), it made it especially difficult to really fall in love with the story.
Another complaint I have: this is one of those stories where the book we are reading is supposed to have actually been a book written by one of the characters. That is, at one point, we learn that Where’d you Go is actually Bee’s doing. That is, she compiled a bunch of the materials and inserted her own narrative to tie it all together, resulting in the very book we are now reading. I hate it when this happens in books, although I couldn’t tell you why I it bothers me so much. I think maybe it’s because (1) it’s been done a few too many times for it to feel novel anymore, and (2) it is almost sort of a timeout from the actual story to describe the process of writing itself.
I also felt like the ending to this book was pretty rushed. There was buildup pretty much until the very end, and then very suddenly everything was over, almost as though Semple sort of got tired of her own book (that makes the two of us). After reading other reviews, I feel like I should have probably liked the writing more than I did. Everyone comments on how satirical it was and such a powerful commentary on suburban life. I get that to an extent (I appreciate satire as much as anyone), and while I appreciate the absurdity and ridiculousness of the concerns of Bernadette’s neighbors, I didn’t find Semple’s style particularly thought provoking or even making any sort of statement that hasn’t been made before. For a truly hilarious satire, take a read through Cold Comfort Farm.
Overall, this was a light, if initially sort of confusing, read. I can see how this would really be somebody’s cup of tea – unfortunately it wasn’t mine. But, by all means give it a shot if the concept sounds appealing to you.
Final Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.