Book Review – Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Little Brown & Co, 2012) is a fun book. But don’t let that fool you. There’s a lot to this novel. Maria Semple, who has been a writer for some TV shows that you’ve probably heard of *cough Arrested Development cough*, proves that she can delve into deep topics. Family, infidelity, mental illness, Seattle traffic, private schools.

Bernadette, as soon in the title of the book, is a former genius architect, now semi-crazy mother to Bee. She spends her days communicating with her Internet assistant in India, and not helping out at Bee’s private school, Galer Street. She’s anti-social to a hilarious extreme. Bernadette erects a giant sign facing her neighbour (and archenemy)’s house. And yet her insane antics are balanced by the close and loving relationship she clearly has with her daughter. The reader loves Bernadette because Bee loves Bernadette.

It is Bee who tells us her mother’s story. Interrupted by her narration, we read a collection of e-mails, hospital bills, and court documents, and come to realize that we are following Bee as she pieces her mother’s life together following Bernadette’s disappearance. Searching for Bernadette takes other characters to South America and Antarctica and forces Bee and her father, Elgin, to reexamine their lives and relationships.

Where the mother-daughter relationship between Bee and Bernadette is fairly straightforward, it’s the marriage of Elgin and Bernadette that creates the greatest tension and unease in the novel. We are told a story of what happens in a marriage as people change. What happens when a couple moves across country, when dreams fade, and suddenly they find themselves different people than they were when they started out. Do you give up and start over or do you track your wife to Antarctica and demand an explanation?

To complement Bernadette’s own brand of peculiarity, we have Audrey, the aforesaid neighbour who is also a parent at Galer Street and seems to be Bernadette’s opposite in every way. Audrey starts out as a fairly one-dimensional character – the classic over-achieving mom who hosts events and desires to control everyone around her. She’s so easy to dislike that we’re all the more willing to love Bernadette’s ridiculous eccentricities. Yet Audrey has a lovely transformation (if perhaps somewhat unexplained) partway through the novel that ends up being crucial to Bee’s family.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? would be a great weekend or beach read. You won’t struggle to get through it but it will still give you pause to think.

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