Friday, November 4, 2016

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

When my book club voted for WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE as our next read, I was apprehensive. This was a book I had already written off as having no intention to read. Suddenly - a dilemma! I bought the book at a brick-and-mortar in a small, college town, and told myself to try and at least find something worth remarking on that wasn't negative that also wasn't my fallback "the cover is pretty!" (even though it is - pretty)

To my surprise, I actually found myself getting caught up in the story. Oh, don't get me wrong. I didn't find the characters quirky or charming in the slightest and their (many) foibles did not endear them to me in the slightest. But their pettiness was amusing, in the same way that Jerry Springer can be amusing, or viral videos of shouting, angry people can be amusing. "What the hell is wrong with these people?" I asked myself. "Who does this?"

The titular Bernadette is a failed architect living with her Microsoft husband and precocious young daughter. They reside in a Stepfordian Seattle suburb, where the parents make a habit of getting involved in their children's lives, prepping them for Ivies even though they're scarcely out of grade school. Everyone except Bernadette, however, who's pretty much checked out and seems to be borderline agoraphobic, as she has a $.75/hr virtual assistant in India to handle even the most menial of tasks, whether it's buying the groceries or booking a plane.

Bernadette's arch-nemesis is a nosy neighbor and fellow mom named Audrey. Bernadette calls Audrey and her friends "the gnats." Audrey can't stand Bernadette, and thinks she's a total weirdo-freak. The two of them spend most of the first half fighting and passively-aggressively getting revenge on one another, which is entertaining, because it's like they're in a contest to see who can be the biggest witch. I even devised a mental score system, and would award points for particularly inspired acts of bitchery.

The story gets a little weird when Bee calls her parents up on a promise to take her to Antarctica if she gets all A's. Bernadette undergoes what appears to be a mental breakdown, and shortly after everything hits the fan, she pulls a disappearing act.

I thought Bernadette's backstory was interesting, but this is another instance when a work of fiction doesn't really treat mental health with the proper realism. Instead of being treated as a serious issue, the old fall backs remain the status quo: her craziness is often the butt of jokes, treated as being comedic instead of grave, and despite behaviors that ought to be raising multiple red flags, people are quicker to look the other way or indulge her dangerous whims because she's an "artist" who just needs to "create."

For a book whose plot involves repeatedly jumping the shark, I felt like the last third of the book really tested my suspension of disbelief. Nor did I get the closure I wanted regarding Bernadette's issues or some of the things her husband did. Audrey's redemption arc was surprising and welcome, but the confirmation of Audrey's villainy did not redeem Bernadette's or Elgie's.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE. It's not something I ever would have picked out for myself, but that's the beauty of book clubs. Sometimes you're pleasantly surprised. This is one of those instances.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars.


  1. Fabulous review. It was very hard for me to wrangle my feelings into something readable. What a crazy ride

    1. Thanks! It could be so over-the-top, right? It felt very reality TV-ish in that way.