Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review: Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

Title: Where'd You Go Bernadette?
Author: Maria Semple
Publisher: AudioGo, 9 hrs. 36 min
Narrator: Kathleen Wilhoite
Genre: fiction
Subject: ??
Setting: Seattle, Antartica
Source: Library download

Often as I'm reading (or in this case listening to) a book, I make notes to help me refresh my ancient brain when it comes time to say something lucid in a review.

Let's begin by saying I absolutely loved this book!  I knew nothing about it when I started, in fact, I'd never heard of it, and the cover had caused me to pass right by, thinking it was pure chick-lit, airport quick-read air.  However, it showed up on a list of books for a group I'm participating in (more on that much later in the year) and it also showed up as available in audio on a day when I was headed to the pool.

Now the puzzle.  Here are the notes I made as I was listening (obviously I jot them down when I get OUT of the pool):

Genre - mystery? psychological character study? family drama? soap opera?
Setting - wonderful if you've been there, but confusing if not familiar with Seattle, and who on earth takes a 15 year old to Antarctica?
Characters - whacko composites? believable?  who's the hero? villains? I know that events planner!
Formats - new aged epistulary?  does it work? very innovative, not normal diary/letters
story-line - forced? or farced?

So with all those seeming conflicting and negative notes, how on earth could I love this book?  The simple answer is that Semple, using an unusual format, tells a rather outlandish but basically believable story from the points of view of several of the wackiest and most loveable and/or detestable characters every to grace the pages of a novel and she makes it all work.

Told in emails, letters, FBI reports, newspaper stories, an emergency room bill, psychiatrist notes, this could have been a mish-mash of nothing.  Instead, we are able to see a story unfold from many perspectives as Bernadette Fox - prize-winning architect, mother of Bee, wife of Microsoft gaming wonder Elgin- spins through life in a reality totally out of sync with everyone around her.  She's so phobic about everything in the world that she contracts the daily necessities of life to a virtual personal assistant in India. She does not cook, she orders out, (actually the personal assistant does the ordering) saving the take out containers for building materials to use for an eventual rehab of their rapidly deteriorating house.   She battles with her next door neighbor over blackberry vines and PTA duties, enrolls her daughter Bee in an exclusive private school but prefers to remain uninvolved in any parental activities -even removing herself from the school's email list so she doesn't have to be bothered with them.  She promises Bee a Christmas trip to Antarctica but leaves the planning up to her virtual assistant, and then begins to back out as her phobias kick into high gear. Then she disappears.

The biggest problem with this book is that the reader cannot stop laughing long enough to read it quickly, but cannot read it quickly enough to be satisfied.  Sometimes I had to go back to be sure she really said what I thought she did.   Semple takes a disparate batch of glop and weaves it into a tightly bound package of funny but somehow serious thought, that gives us a glimpse of the corporate culture of a city and a citizenry over the top.  As you can tell from my notes, it's really hard to describe, but it's way harder to put this down once you start it.  It's going to be on my best of list for 2013, and I'm betting many of my readers will love it too.  Let me know.


  1. Tutu-I just read this too!

    I love your list, it's very true. A tough book to categorize, and I'm sure I missed many of the zingier Microsoft/Seattle references.

    I really liked it too. Glad to see the epistolary novel brought up to speed for the 21st century with more than just letters.

    I liked Bee, and I guess as a only child, if you said anything and she said Antarctica, maybe you would plan a Christmas vacation trip there!

  2. This sounds very different from a lot of the books I have been reading. It seems both light and funny, and deeply mysterious as well. I would love to find out what exactly has happened to Bernadette, and how Bee finds her. Amazingly tempting review today. I loved it!

    Zaira Lynn (Seattle IT Consultant)


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