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

This seems to be a book that just appears. I seriously don’t remember where I got it, why I got it, or any “World Book Night” event that I might’ve attended. I’m thinking it just appeared, the same way it seemed to have appeared at one point everywhere. I remember walking past a cabin in the woods and seeing it on the front porch, I remember seeing it on so many coffee tables, bookshelves, and in so many libraries. However, despite its prevalence, I don’t remember hearing a word about it. Not a clue about what it contained.

This book is something I inhaled. I had other things to do like edit my podcast but all I wanted to do was sit and read this book. It’s been a while since I’ve done that. It was a nice feeling especially with a book that I had no idea what it was about beyond falling in the category of “funny” that I usually don’t agree with.

By this I mean what I was talking about in my last Review, “And Another Thing… Where an average book that all the blurbs on the cover state it’s outrageously hilarious such as:

“Divinely funny.”

-New York Times


“A cracklingly smart family dramedy”


I mean Time what are you even trying to say there? I’m pretty sure you’re making up words. No, really I Googled “cracklingly” and recipes for pork rinds came up. What does it even mean Time?????

Anyway, what I mean is these types of books that state on the cover that they’re funny from large, famous newspapers/magazines usually don’t make me laugh or delight me in the way the quotes seem to ensure. Not like the works of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams have done pretty consistently.

However I did enjoy Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and I’m kind of surprised. Because usually, I have to like characters in order to enjoy a book. And if I’m being really honest I would not want to hang out with any character in the book. Probably. Maybe the versions of themselves at the end after some character growth. But opening book characters, oh definitely not.

The book is an epistolary, compiled with a collection of all sorts of things. Report cards, e-mails, letters, faxes, blog posts, articles, and even receipts intermittently strung together with a narrative which can be a bit off-putting or at least throw you for a loop. But once I figured out what was going on it was more enjoyable, especially as you reach the latter half of the book which tends to be more single narrator-esq then every other page swapping out.

The story takes place in Seattle. We follow the family of Bernadette Fox. She hates everything and everyone. She hates Seattle. She hates the rain. She hates the people who live in Seattle. She hates being close to Canada. She hates the local architecture which is apparently all Craftsman style.

“Everything else is Craftsman. Turn-of-the-century Craftsman, beautifully restored Craftsman, reinterpretation of Craftsman, needs-some-love Craftsman, modern take on Craftsman. It’s like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle in a collective trance.”

The only thing Bernadette Fox likes seems to be: avoiding people, not showering, and her daughter Bee/Buzzy/ Balakrishna Branch and to an extent, her husband Elgie.

Balakrishna was named such because she was born blue and with a heart defect that stunted her growth but she’s grown healthy since. She’s in the 8th grade and goes by Bee. She’s well loved by her classmates, the town, the school and pretty much anyone and everyone she runs into. She’s a gifted child and is very excited to follow in her parents footsteps of going off to boarding school on the east coast. She was also promised that if she got good grades all through middle school she’d be given anything she wanted.

“The year is only a third over, but already I am mourning the day Bee graduates from Galer Street and heads out into the world. I understand she is applying to boarding schools back east. I envy the teachers who get to meet Bee for the first time and to discover for themselves what a lovely young woman she is.”

A section of the comments from her teacher Mr. Levy on her “report card”.

With her good grades she’s requested a family cruise to Antarctica. Now you might be wondering like I was: How on earth is this family going to afford anything a kid wants, let alone a trip to Antarctica? What do they do? Well, Bernadette does nothing. She’s an insomniac shut-in, practically agoraphobic…except for when she’s not. (She used to be an architect) But her husband Elgie Branch is famous, in the fictional world of the book he’s the 4th most popular TED talk ever and works for Microsoft essentially bringing the family so much money that Bernadette can secretly outsource all her needs and rant away to a virtual assistant who for some reason works in India. Why India? No clue. Now there are virtual assistants available almost anywhere, but maybe in 2012 India was the big place to get a virtual assistant. I don’t know, but Bernadette tends to run forward ranting about anything and everything, many of which fall into harmful stereotypes at best.

Through Bernadette’s virtual assistant Manjula who rarely writes much back we get a lot more backstory. We also get a lot of red flags. Like Bernadette sharing her bank routing number, social security number, passport number, and pretty much all important private information with her virtual assistant. But Bernadette does it without batting an eye and just continues on sharing information with a stranger who barely ever says much in return. Which is kind of weird because she hates everyone else.

“If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.”

Slowly things start to spiral out of control. Bernadette is the opposite of Bee. Her hatred of everything is reflected back to her by the community and the “rivalry” between her and the other moms at the local school continues to spiral out of control putting lives, property, relationships, and mental health on the line. Everyone is so full of themselves and how perfect they and their families are that they refuse to listen to reason. Until one day Bernadette is confronted by every bad thing that’s happened which has spiraled out of control to the point of her husband holding an intervention to possibly get her locked up in a mental care center. They corner her and suddenly she disappears. And Bee whose collected all the documents tries her best to piece together what happened and where her mother might be, as well as whether she’s even still alive.

Again, not a huge fan of the characters. But the gossip and drama play out like an intense soap opera that I just had to keep reading what other ridiculous thing happened next. Which I think is sort of the point. I also really enjoyed learning about Antarctica, even though I spent a lot of time wanting to yell at Bee to go out and explore because how often do you get to go to Antarctica?

I looked it up. Apparently National Geographic does cruises to Antarctica that runs around $15,000 per person for about 13 days and the things written in the book look fairly accurate. Their cruises also leave from Ushuaia, Argentina, and go through the Drake Passage. The ships seem full of naturalists and scientists to chat with people. You leave the ship aboard little boats called Zodiacs or go kayaking and you wear bright red warm clothing. I’m kind of shocked how factual this is. And how badly I now want to go on a cruise to Antarctica. It wasn’t on my list of places but now is. This is not what I was expecting when I picked up this book. If you’re curious about the National Geographic cruises you can check them out here.

While I didn’t really find this book a laugh out loud comedy book I loved that I learned something, went on a bit of an adventure, enjoyed all the dramatics and the bit of mystery as the story unspooled and filled in the blanks.

What’s a book you’ve read that’s made you want to visit some place? Have you gone? What did you think?

Interested in reading this book? You can buy it here and support local bookstores.

Also is it just me that this book was miraculously everywhere stateside at one point? Like the U2 music everyone suddenly had on their phones that one time?

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