Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Where'd You Go, Bernadette
Maybe that’s what religion is, hurling yourself off a cliff and trusting that something bigger will take care of you and carry you to the right place.

Bernadette Fox has a reputation. While her husband and her daughter Bee love her, there's barely anyone else who share the sentiment. Her neighbor Audrey loves to gossip mean things about her with her close friend, Soo-Lin. The other parents of kids at Bee's school look down on Bernadette because she doesn't involve herself in school affairs. Bernadette herself goes out of her way to avoid company.

And then one day, Bee comes home with an excellent report card and asks for her reward - a family trip to Antarctica. The very plan throws Bernadette into a panic but she has no other option. She hires a virtual assistant, based out of India to take care of all her demands, including getting prescriptions at her local pharmacy, doing her online shopping and taking care of some of the logistics of her trip. (It is ridiculous! Bernadette takes the very idea of a personal assistant to the extreme.) Until things just start to go wrong - one after the other - in a very beautiful cascading ripple effect that sends Bernadette disappearing from the very face of earth. And now nobody can find her.

Now here's a book I would love to read twice. I may not even mind reading any other similar books out there. When I read the synopsis of this book, it sounded very much like light women fiction to me - which I read only occasionally, usually when I am in need of a light read. So I didn't think too much of this book and only skimmed over the few reviews I came across. Until the Morning Tournament of Books listed this one as one of the contenders in this year's list. That intrigued me enough to make me pick it up at the library and am I glad I read it? There is a pretty good chance this book will end up as one of my favorites this year.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette is written in epistolary style, and before you think letters, let me assure you that it is so much more than that. There are all kinds of writing media used here - letters, journal entries, texts, emails, news articles, billboard signs, college reports, invoices, and many more. The use of a variety of formats made this book feel very fresh - there was an element of surprise involved in just trying to discover what format comes next, all the way to the end. The use of emails made it more exciting - some of the "chapters" were therefore very short and some significantly long. I don't have my book with me anymore, but if I remember correctly, there were really no chapters. The story was told in chronological fashion with a bunch of letters under each date.

What I loved most about this book was how hysterically hilarious it was. Where'd You Go, Bernadette was a satire of a lot of silly human characteristics and behaviors. For instance, Bee's school principal has hired someone to try and attract a lot of the rich families to send their kids to Bee's school rather than the more popular posh school in the district. These parents are whimsically nicknamed "Mercedes Parents". Bernadette's blind trust of her virtual assistant was itself laughable. She has been sharing almost every detail of her life and credit cards with this stranger, just to avoid moving her butt a few inches. And then there's this parent who takes great pleasure in ridiculing Bernadette and her husband, Elgie.... until, she herself begins to fall for him and deludes herself with the thought that Elgie needs her support (and more!) in Bernadette's absence.

Some of the characters were stereotyped but they eventually ended up surprising me. The characters I thought were sensible turned out to be shallow and those that I thought I would love to kick some time turned out to have really big hearts. Once Bernadette goes missing, Bee tries really hard to find her. It isn't clear initially how she gets access to all the information that she narrates in this book, but they are revealed towards the end. The almost wild goose hunt that she and her father go on are quite exciting to read about as well.

Oh, and Antarctica! How I wish I could visit thee! Where'd You Go, Bernadette describes this continent with so much vividness and color that it almost felt like I was traveling too. I googled cruises to Antarctica after reading this book and am disappointed with how expensive they are. Sigh.. I'll wait for that lottery. But anyhow, this book definitely taught me a lot more about that distant continent - I had no idea there were so many people out there!

Anyways, if you have already read this book, I want to hear what you thought. And if you haven't, I hope you'll read it!


I borrowed this book from the good old library.


27 comments:

bermudaonion(Kathy) said...

I wanted to visit Antarctica after I read this too! You should try the audio version - it's fabulous!

Tina Reed said...

I have been going through the tournament books as well and this one was not on my radar before then. Mainly, for the same reason you list here. It seemed a bit light and overly simplistic. So glad to hear that there is much more to it than what I originally thought.

zibilee said...

I have this one on audio, and have heard nothing but good things about it! I am thinking of making it my next read. I am so glad that you enjoyed it, and since it's been a long time since I read a book in the epistolary genre, I am rather excited!

Cat said...

It's on the Woman's Fiction Prize longlist but not one I was really interested in reading. Your review has me rethinking - thanks - and I might change my mind now.

Helen Murdoch said...

Your blog is the only one where I have even seen mention of this book. I think I'll have to add it to my list of must reads!

JoV said...

This looks like a fun book. So many books to read, not sure this will make the cut but I will keep an eye on it. ;)

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

I've been meaning to get this one. It sounds fab fab fab. Great review.

Lisa Sheppard said...

No wonder everyone is raving about this one! I think my book club would like this.

Aparatchick said...

I read it last year and loved it (it was one of my favorite books of 2012). It has the neat trick of being both insightful and hilariously funny.

Ryan St.Onge said...

I keep reading good things about this novel. I'm going to go buy it right now. Oh, and I've always wanted to visit Antarctica. One day, soon.

Marie said...

OK! It's just out in paperback. I"ll pick it up!

Athira / Aths said...

I should pick that some time. I'm curious about how the epistolary format translates into audio.

Athira / Aths said...

I am definitely glad that I read this book. I'm sure you will like it too. It was hardly fluffy or light. It was fun but it had depth too.

Athira / Aths said...

Kathy said the audio is fabulous! I will be eager to hear what you think of it.

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you enjoy it. I would not have picked this book if not for the Tournament of Books and I'm glad now that I did read it.

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you get to read it. It's fabulous!

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you get a chance to read it. It's definitely a different kind of book.

Athira / Aths said...

Thanks! I hope you enjoy it!

Athira / Aths said...

Yay! I hope you and your book club enjoy this one!

Athira / Aths said...

That's what I thought - it's funny and has depth. It was well worth reading.

Athira / Aths said...

I started looking at cruise prices right after reading. Oh boy, if they were only half the price, I could consider.

Athira / Aths said...

Yay! Hope you enjoy it.

Athira / Aths said...

That's what happened to me. I was just "sampling" the book and before I knew it, I had settled down to read it.

mayceegreene said...

That book sound seriously amazing. I may just have to add it to my weekly reading!

Maycee (Seattle IT Consulting)

Eva Sheryl said...

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Michell Jackel said...

It's fabulous!

Michell Jackel said...

When he hired personal assistant her decision was very good.