Maria Semple
Maria Semple

A Review of Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” Book Cover
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” Book Cover

What is there to really say about Maria Semple’s breakthrough 2012 novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette? It is, by now, something of a mainstream comedy classic, but it did arrive with a fair amount of hype as it was: the hardcover book was blurbed by none other than Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Kate Atkinson (Life After Life), and Patrick deWitt (The Sisters Brothers). The book was adapted into a 2019 film directed by Richard Linklater, and I think the movie adaptation must have been at least somewhat successful as it played at an art-house cinema here in Ottawa, Canada (where I live) for at least a month, if not longer. (Most films only play for a week or two, tops, at said theatre.) What I do know is that — at least, in Ottawa — the film was met by mixed reviews. One review from one local media source loved it, another from another media source absolutely hated it. I think the same polarity holds true of the book: either this is something you’re going to be charmed by or are going to think is obnoxious. And part of the reason is that it can’t quite make up its mind as to whether it is supposed to be a comedy or something dramatic and serious.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette focuses on the Branch-Fox family that lives in Seattle, Washington, and is told mainly from the perspective of the family’s 15-year-old daughter and sole offspring named Bee, who is enrolled in a private school (that is located right next to a fish market). At school, Bee has received the equivalent of nothing but straight A’s, so, as a reward, the family decides to spend the Christmas holidays visiting Antarctica via a cruise ship. Bernadette Fox is the mother: she is known as a gifted architect who squandered her promise after the sole house she built (that was an architectural marvel) was bulldozed in a landowner dispute. The promise was squandered because, for the past 20 years, she has done nothing but stew about her failure and has retreated into a misanthropic private life in which she doesn’t participate or engage with society. Meanwhile, Elgin Branch, the father, works long hours as the lead designer of a special project at Microsoft and isn’t around to emotionally support his family. Eventually, Bernadette — through a series of kind of comedic mishaps with her neighbours and fellow school parents — goes further and further down the spiral, and then just vanishes off the face of the earth. Bee is distraught and sets out to uncover what happened to her mother. The novel is noteworthy in that — even though this is Bee’s book — a large part of it is told through various points-of-view via email or Instant Messenger chains and the odd handwritten letter or fax.

Despite there being a movie out there, I was pretty insulated by the plot of this book since buying the hardcover (and not reading it until now) 10 years ago. I honestly thought that Bernadette’s vanishing took place in the first act of this read, and the book would be a lightweight Carmen Sandiego-esque romp across the world as Bee travels to find her mother. However, it turns out that the book is much more depressing and touches on subjects such as the perils of motherhood and the impact of potential mental illness on a person. The tone of the book changes from the first two acts to the final one. The start and midsection of this book are largely amusing, but then there’s a big shift and things suddenly become dead serious — something that was a little hard for me to reconcile. Also, the whole point of the book changes. What starts out being a send-up of Seattle’s wanna-be one-percenters — after all, the Branch-Fox family lives in a decrepit old former reformatory school for girls that has a leaky roof and is only being held together by blackberry vines — turns into something else entirely. Thus, I’m not entirely sure what the point of this story really is. Is it a simple comedy of errors, or something much more dramatic and tragic — a story about losing what you have, perhaps?

Still, author Maria Semple shows that she has talent: I understand that she was a writer on the TV sitcom Arrested Development, whose first two seasons rank as some of the funniest television ever broadcast on a major US TV network. And Where’d You Go, Bernadette does have its amusing moments and shows the pitfalls and dangers of being so self-absorbed that one tends to miss the big picture. However, it’s also a bit of a few-hanky weepie towards the end, and the shift in tone is jarring. The book gets bogged down after Bernadette leaves the picture because she’s such an amusing and interesting character. The book suffers and moves backward when we stop hearing from her. Bee, it turns out, is a bit of a drama queen and her voice as a character is not as interesting as the adults, even though she has come through a series of adverse events since being born prematurely. So, there are pros and cons to this read, and what starts out being a sparkling gem of a book gradually diminishes as it nears its conclusion. It does end on an optimistic note, but it feels as though the reader must trek all the way across Antarctica itself just to get there. And the book has its share of quirkiness, which may put off readers looking for a more serious read.

In the end, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a book that you’ll either adore or absolutely hate. Me? I find myself falling somewhere towards the middle. I really appreciated the lighter and more comedic aspects of the book, but I felt the dramatic elements were sometimes a little heavy-handed. Still, it takes an unusual approach in deflating its subject matter and creates unlikable characters who are a little bit likable and relatable. After all, there probably isn’t a mother alive who wishes that she could just get away from it all and disappear off the planet for a little while just to get away from life’s chores and responsibilities. If reading is about escapism, then Where’d You Go, Bernadette is one 300-plus page book about escape and neglect of one’s responsibilities towards family and community. For that reason, the novel is certainly worthy of all the attention it received and is worth reading — just with caveats. The book has proven to be popular — 45,500 reviews on Goodreads can’t be wrong — so if you’re looking for the lightweight mixed in with a little bit of drama, this should be your go-to read at the beach next summer.

Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette was published by Little, Brown and Company on August 14, 2012.

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Zachary Houle

Zachary Houle

Book critic by night, technical writer by day. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.