If I had a dollar for everyone who had recommended Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple to me… well, I’d have a nice little pile of dollars. Has there been a more glowingly received book than Semple’s latest novel? Not that I can recall.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Semple’s earlier book, This One Is Mine, so I avoided Bernadette for quite a while, politely smiling when yet another friend recommended it but making no serious moves to get it. I gave in a few weeks ago when I saw it on audio and in paper at the library at the same time, a rare occurrence that necessitated no holds and allowed me to leave with both in hand, ready to pop the CD in the car. As it turns out, I read it in paper (too little time in the car alone), finally curious enough about those good reviews to give it a chance.
My verdict? I liked it, but I didn’t love it as much as everyone else did.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is about Bernadette Fox, a middle-aged architect in Seattle who has fled north from Los Angeles after an admittedly heartbreaking incident at a groundbreaking house that she designed and built. Fox, a Macarthur genius grant winner, hates Seattle with a passion, but she is so afraid to face her former self that she lives there in exile, cursing its residents and withdrawing further into agoraphobia. After a rather spectacular flameout, she simply disappears. Fox’s husband Elgin is a superstar at Microsoft, and her daughter Bee is a precocious 8th grader at a precious school “where compassion, academics and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet”.
That quote should give you an idea of Semple’s humor (she’s also a TV comedy writer). Semple makes fun of so much in Bernadette – TED Talks, Microsoft, helicopter parenting, private schools, Seattle in general – and her barbs are spot-on without going over the top. The book is written in a number of formats – emails, doctor’s reports, narrative, live blogs, articles, etc. – which makes the reading quick and entertaining. But there is also a lot of pain under the surface of the book. Bernadette loves her daughter intensely, which makes her shortcomings as a mother even sadder. She wants to do best for Bee, but she just can’t overcome the creative baggage that paralyzes her. And Bee and Elgin love Bernadette too, but Elgin is pushed to the limits of his emotional and financial patience by Bernadette’s shenanigans, and ultimately cracks under the weight of that pressure.
What I didn’t love about Bernadette: it went too far. There was a point about 2/3 through where it went from funny and vaguely realistic to farce. At that point, I just wanted to finish the book. I still laughed every now and again, but it had lost its power for me. I found myself skimming the Antarctica section – way too long – and feeling nostalgic for the first half of the book. Bernadette was a sympathetic character, but she became too much of a caricature for me.
The one part that really got me, though, was when Bee was talking to her father about their missing mother/wife, and she told him that while he was logging the long hours at Microsoft, “me and Mom were having the best, funnest time ever, Mom and I lived for each other.” Great reminder that motherhood isn’t about being perfect (or even capable, it would appear), but something far more complex.
So… this one was OK for me. I was kind of disappointed given the reviews, but I also went in with a bit of a bad attitude.