Since the next paragraph sounds derogatory, I’m going to give it to you straight here: I loved reading this book. Now…
I did not LOL. (I might have smirked.) This book was not a mystery. It was only half-satire. And it cheated with the epistolary form (as many epistolary novels do). It might have been elevated chick lit. Maybe not, though. In other words, Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? has been accused of many things that I didn’t find it guilty of, or at least not fully.
This book popped up on my radar when the movie trailer did, some time in the past year. With Cate Blanchett at the helm, the idea and tone of the movie immediately appealed: sassy, artistic mother disappears after a career loss. Where did she go? It looked main-stream artsy/quirky and topically interesting—myself a 40-year old artist and mother who could find herself in a mid-life crisis at any moment. (For the review of the movie, see below.) I watched the movie, and within days my aunt was saying to me, “You know, the book is so much better. You bored during Covid? I’ll send you a copy.”
Now, I don’t like to disappoint people, so as soon as I was done reading The Martian Chronicles (which was an asked-for gift from my daughter), I picked up Bernadette, expecting it to take, what?, a week? It was sorta hefty at 326 pages and epistolary at that (which can take more work for the reader), but it also seemed like it would be “easy” or “light” reading, which it basically is. I couldn’t put it down for two days! And lest you imagine me during this stay-at-home order lolling about on the sofa binge-watching Netflix under a blanket of chip crumbs, I will tell you that I am still schooling one child, working from home, and managing a household while my husband still works full-time as a nurse. In the betweens and betwixes (which there admittedly are more of during this time), I glued this book to my forehead and read.
I wish I hadn’t seen the movie first, because then there would have been a whole lot more surprises. And this book is a page-turner, so you want to be surprised. But it’s not like an epic adventure, or anything. I kept turning the pages because I was involved with the characters and I could also smell tragedy around every corner. It was all so precarious. It was also done in a voice that was fun to be around: snarky, honest, smart, observant, discerning even, and a little funny. I felt like I was there, especially when I was hearing from Bernadette. She sounds like a curmudgeonly genius, which just happens to be someone I would want to hear from, especially since Bernadette is also so feminine and fiery and, well, super warm under her cold, wacky exterior.
There were a few flies in my ointment (besides feeling like I wasn’t supposed to be enjoying this book as much as I was). The “satire,” which in my mind as I read was “poking fun,” definitely hit some sore spots with me. I’m not from Seattle or the Northwest (or Canada), I didn’t go to boarding school, I’m not a tech-nerd, and while I am privileged enough, I just drooled over the lives of the elite at the Fox-Branch’s level. (My middle schooler wants to go to Antarctica, perhaps the most expensive place to go in the world? Book it for next week and let’s make sure we buy every item we take new and top-of-the-line!) But I am a Christian, I drive a Subaru, my children went to a small Montessori charter school, and I was involved in a 12-step program for years. While some of the satire about people like me was still funny, I thought she was off on the Christians and the 12-step groups. I mean, American, middle-class Christianity as well as 12-step groups bring a lot of joy, purpose, and meaning to people’s lives. Do they have dimensions worth criticizing and/or making fun of? Of course. But all the Christians in the book were phony as bologna, intense, and mean, while the 12-steppers were bizarre beyond belief. So, lost opportunity there and I was mildly offended.
As for the perspective of this novel, it’s certainly worth talking about. As I said, the book is epistolary, and it’s difficult to make epistolary work. In this case, it was done well, and at times you forget that it’s just a packet of documents that you are reading. However, you forget because many of the documents don’t read at all like documents, but like a novel. Hmm. No one in the world flings back emails with that much detail and dialogue in them. And sometimes the information in these “documents” verges on the absurd. Then again, if you just let go and remember that you are, in fact, reading a novel and that the author was not giving you actual documents but telling a story in an interesting way, it was much more enjoyable. But it was sometimes distracting. It was also occasionally distracting to me that they story was being told through a teen. At first, I thought maybe this novel would be good YA reading because of it, but no way: this is a very adult novel. And not because of the content (though there are some adult themes), but because this book really speaks to people just like Bernadette and Elgie and maybe Audrey and Soo-Lin: middle-aged and with children. Their problems, their victories, their experiences… and it was just a little awkward to expect a teen (even a precarious, genius teen) to be the one to present it to the audience.
In the end, I found Where’d You Go, Bernadette? to be less funny, and more insightful, engaging, and even sad in a human-experience way. It was honest, even though sometimes almost slap-stick, and I thoroughly enjoyed both the book and Bernadette. I loved this book. The characters were simultaneously larger-than-life and super-real. Some of the language is beautiful and almost all of it is witty. I really found the currents of it relatable, even subtle and compassionate, and the story fun to read. I can imagine myself reading it again.
“Do you get seasick? People who don’t get seasick have no idea what it’s like. It’s not just nausea. It’s nausea plus losing the will to live” (p35-36).
“So I have no choice but to cowboy up and not make this all about me” (p38).
“Well, it only gets more boring. The sooner you learn it’s on you to make life interesting, the better off you’ll be” (44).
“This guy was proving resistant to my many charms, or else I am without charms, which is probably the case” (p61).
“This is why I didn’t want her to come to the first grade elephant dance. Because the most random things get her way too full of love” (p81).
“’I love you, Bee,’ Mom said. ‘I’m trying. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t’” (p82).
“There was a terrifying chasm between the woman I fell in love with and the ungovernable one sitting across from me” (p97).
“The only thing you can blame Elgie for is he makes life look so damn simple: do what you love. In his case, that means working, spending time with his family, and reading presidential biographies” (p130).
“Inside me roiled something so terrible that God knew he had to keep my baby alive, or this torrent within me would be unleashed on the universe” (p131).
“That’s what happened to me, in Seattle. Come at me, even in love, and I’ll scratch the hell out of you” (p136).
“I’d rather ruin her with the truth than ruin her with lies” (p243).
“Dad pointed to himself. ‘What you are looking at is me ignoring you. That’s what the experts told me to do, so that’s what I’m doing’” (p263).
“It was just me and time” (p268).
“’There’s a saying,’ Dad said. ‘When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras’” (p272).
“By definition, nobody lets an accident happen” (p273).
“…if Antarctica could talk, it would be saying only one thing: you don’t belong here” (p277).
“They were so haunting and majestic you could feel your heart break, but really they’re just chunks of ice and they mean nothing” (p280).
“She was an artist who had stopped creating. I should have done everything I could to get her back” (p288).
“When your eyes are softly focused on the horizon for sustained periods, your brain releases endorphins” (p293).
“(This is why you must love life: one day you’re offering up your social security number to the Russian Mafia; two weeks later you’re using the word calve as a verb)” (p314).
“Why I’m even mentioning this, I guess it’s to say that I let you down in a hundred different ways. Did I say a hundred? A thousand is more like it” (p316).
“Really, who wants to admit to her daughter that she was once considered the most promising architect in the country but now devotes her celebrated genius to maligning the driver in front of her for having Idaho plates?” (p316).
“But the good kind of heart racing, like, Hello, can I help you with something? If not, please step aside because I’m about to kick the shit out of life” (p317).
“My body gave a little jolt. Here was a woman who took can-do to an whole new exciting level” (p322).
“I’m an Antarctic 10, a boat ride away from being a 5” (p324).
“I’m not your best friend. I’m your mother. As your mother, I have two proclamations” (p325).
BONUS: SHORT STORY REVIEW: DEAR MOUNTAIN ROOM PARENTS
In the Reading Group Guide at the end of the book, Semple (or her publishers) slid in a short story. The story first appeared in The New Yorker in 2011, before the book was published. It has a very similar tone and even subject matter to Bernadette. (Definitely could have happened at Galer Street School). I imagine it’s a forerunner to Bernadette. At any rate, I read it, and I’m glad I did. It’s short. It’s funny. It speaks to experiences that I have been through. And I recommend it. That’s all.
As mentioned above, I watched Where’d You Go, Bernadette? before reading it, because I initially had no intention of reading it. Let’s just put it out there: it gets mixed reviews and generally they’re very much in the middle. I do agree with my aunt that they book is much better. If you think the book isn’t very mysterious, the movie is even less-so. They did skirt right around the most heart-breaking part of the book, which is all nice for general audiences, and I can see the issues of going from epistolary to big screen, and I think they handled that pretty well (except you know from the first scene exactly where Bernadette is). I think the acting is exemplary and the overall mood of the movie is right up my alley. But overall, I’m with everyone else. Ehn. Fine.