Customer Reviews: Where'd You Go, Bernadette: A Novel
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on August 4, 2012
If you didn't read Maria Semple's first book, This One Is Mine: A Novel you must do so. The author has the kind of writing where she slyly inserts little witty comments here and there and if you just skim the book, you'll miss those gems.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette is an unusual and crafty novel in that it doesn't read completely like a regular book. Put together with bits and pieces from flashbacks, emails and other documents, the book has the reader turning pages to finally figure out where did Bernadette actually go?

What mother can't identify with Bernadette's desire to flee? She was once a promising architect but is now someone who doesn't want to venture outside her house. She is irritated by her neighbors, mothers at her daughter's school,slow drivers, Canadians, to name a few things. In her near-refusal to leave the house, she farms her duties out to a virtual assistant in India and you might take a guess how that pans out.

When Bernadette disappears, her 15 year old daughter is convinced Bernadette just wouldn't go without a good reason. She's the one who pieces everything together but not before the reader is taken on a journey to learn what exactly drove Bernadette to leave.

I was hooked from beginning to end! This novel is fun and entertaining and I was sad to turn the last page.
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on August 3, 2012
Bernadette Fox is a wife and mother with anxiety issues. HUGE anxiety issues. It's so bad that she hires an offshore resource to handle her day-to-day errands - the ones she doesn't have to show up for in person. The less she has to deal with people, the better!

She wasn't always like this. In fact, she used to be a rising star in the world of architecture, back in the day. A genius rising star. Then something happened, and Bernadette ran from the world.

Her husband Elgin still loves her, and her daughter Bee thinks the world revolves around her, so Bernadette doesn't have any complaints. Until things spin out of control, and Elgin decides an intervention is necessary before it all goes to hell in a hand-basket. After all, it can't be good if the FBI comes a-knocking...

Then Bernadette disappears.

Where did she go? I'd tell you, but that would mean you'd miss the fun and enjoyment of reading Where'd You Go, Bernadette? for yourself. It manages to present Bernadette's anxiety issues in a compassionate and heart-warming manner. You'll love Bee, and you'll love Bernadette. Elgin proves that genius doesn't preclude human errors, and the novel ends with lessons learnt even for Bernadette. Definitely add this to your summer reading - before summer's gone.

(review originally posted on drey's library, a book blog)
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on September 9, 2012
(Warning- spoilers) I raced through this book. Bernadette is a very entertaining character- she shares the same opinion of Seattle that most people have when they move here. Many people leave for the reasons Bernadette lists. But I grew to love Bernadette's grit- even if it was a little obsessive and thorny. But then the book takes huge shift- HUGE-changes the character of the mom (she does something to her daughter that is just not conceivable because she is welded to her child and is her child's refuge- so she just wouldn't do it). Maybe the author didn't know where to go from there so she had the mom "go". (the title sort of gives that away in some sort of dual meaning- as in "go away" and/or "loss of self", etc.). But once this happens, the book becomes sort of unbelievable and tedious. And on the last two pages, all of a sudden, Bernadette has a complete reversal of what she previously thought- which was a huge let down for me. There is no resolution for some of the problems that crop up-some HUGE problems- so why have them at all? I guess the author took a class in symbolism, and you don't have to guess what the house, the boat, the ice, the blackberries, etc, all seem to represent. It's in your face for sure. Even though she has some msft details wrong- admins ARE secretaries not VP's and if someone dallies with them, they would be FIRED- and other things that make no sense- I guess the average reader who is NOT in Seattle won't know it, and it won't bother them.
I have to say I loved the first part of the book. I thought it was witty and on the mark, and that Bernadette was a touching and brilliant renegade with her own drum- even if her drum needed some adjustment. Then it fell to "meh,not so much". Sigh. It wasn't laugh out loud funny. But big parts of it were entertaining. It just so lost me at the end.
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on June 8, 2013
*This review contains spoilers*
This book started out really well. I'm a big fan of satire and I found myself settling in for an enjoyable read (I LOVE Arrested Development which Maria Semple worked on, so my expectations were high). At about 40% the shine started to come off. It was the magazine article on Bernadette and her "brilliance" that did it. The woman designed ONE eco house in her entire life and yet she is lauded twenty years later as some kind of genius. Maybe this is meant to be part of the joke but it wasn't funny, especially considering that Bernadette's repressed creativity is seen to be the root cause of all her problems at the end. There needed to be some anchoring in reality. It was also at this point that I realized much of the book is written in the same voice. The simplistically written article, letters, reports etc all sound like they've been penned by the same person. At times they're also boring and I skimmed a lot.

The emails are better but Bernadette, Audrey and Soo-Lin are all remarkably similar in their whiney, self-pitying, self-absorbed, judgemental snarkiness. None of these characters are likeable but Bernadette is by far the worst and she's the one the reader is supposed to sympathize with! I did not like this character at all, and I found myself feeling very confused about exactly who is the target of satire in this book. I came to the conclusion the reader is supposed to vicariously enjoy and share in Bernadette's rants and her insufferable snobbishness.

The way the family's wealth is constantly highlighted through Bernadette's spending doesn't seem to be for satirical reasons, but rather to reinforce Bernadette's superiority to Audrey and Soo-Lin who do have to worry about money. My interpretation is supported by the fact that Bernadette is basically exonerated at the end. Her only real crime was being too trusting of her Indian virtual assistant, while Audrey and Elgie are to blame for everything else. Bernadette gets the happy ending while Soo-Lin is left carrying Elgie's baby and a contrite Audrey is exiled somewhere in the desert while her son goes through detox. Maybe Soo-Lin's pregnancy is meant to cast doubt on the implied happy ending, but I'm more inclined to believe that Bernadette and Elgie will pay Soo-Lin off and swat the baby out of their lives like another annoying gnat. I can't help but feel there's something quite nasty lurking beneath this "satire" about a privileged white woman denied an outlet (of her own making) for her creative genius. All foreigners are portrayed in a satirical way, but to what purpose? Satire has traditionally been used to lampoon the powerful, but the author seems to want to play it both ways here and it doesn't work.

I think Bee is meant to be a sympathetic character but even she comes across as an entitled little princess with her cracks about Yoko Ono and big, black women wearing dresses from Macys (god forbid!). As for the plot, well it also spiralled downwards at about the halfway mark. Even in a comedy there needs to be some level of plausibility, but we are supposed to believe that Bernadette can leave a cruise ship and sneak onto an island populated by scientists, who then offer her a job, and no one thinks to inform the cruise ship that she's with them? Didn't it ever occur to these people that a missing person on a cruise ship is quite a big deal?

On top of everything else the tone and pace of the book are very uneven. I can handle absurdist, over-the-top events when they're actually funny, but these weren't and the superficial characterisation didn't help me to relate to the storyline. Pop culture references, contemporary observations, and insider jokes about Seattle and Microsoft do not make a great book by themselves. I was left scratching my head over the popularity of this one.
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The cover is playful and brash; I must say I had my doubts. But I couldn't resist, on the first page, a grade report from a private elementary school in Seattle that begins thus: "Galer Steeet School is a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet." As a consultant writes to the headmistress a few pages later, "You people don't just think outside the box, you think outside the dictionary!"

Maria Semple's unerring touch for the suburban jugular does not desert her, as she follows the grade sheet with a bunch of eMails, invoices, notes, and letters, connected by scraps of narrative by eighth-grader Bee (short for Balakrishna) Branch. Bee's father, Elgin Branch, is a star at Microsoft. At first, there seems little to choose between her mother Bernadette Fox, and their next-door neighbor Audrey Griffin, another Galer Street parent, who is preparing for an important fund-raiser and engages Bernadette in a hilarious war of attrition. To the degree that one CAN engage Bernadette, of course, for she has become a recluse, handling even her trivial chores through a virtual assistant in India. Indeed the disappearance of Bernadette from social life will become the serious theme of the book, and for much of it she will have disappeared completely and been declared a missing person.

Semple's comic brilliance carried me through almost 100 pages. Then, just as I was wondering whether she could sustain an entire novel, she changed tone almost entirely, giving the background of Bernadette's previous career as an architect. Suddenly, the frame of reference moves from suburban to national, and we are dealing with absolute standards. When Semple moves back to affairs in Seattle, and disaster piles upon disaster in comic profusion, we retain a respect for Bernadette that transcends the comedy. More surprisingly, we even get to see another side to Audrey. The characters are no longer merely figures of fun; they are real people whose concerns matter.

Semple's oblique narrative methods pay particular dividends in her set pieces. The disaster of Audrey's fundraiser is told partly through a series of eMails leading up to the event, and a report from a trauma counsellor afterwards. Other crises are told through police depositions, FBI bulletins, and forensic reports. But pride of place must go to Elgin's since-famous presentation at a computer conference in Long Beach, attended by Al Gore and other dignitaries, as reported by a real-time blogger in the audience. As his visual aids fail him ("It's Microsoft. We had some bugs.") and he runs out of time, it looks like another disaster in the making. But no. It is a perfect example of diminished expectations leading to surprising rewards, and proof of Semple's genius for squarely hitting the target from the most unexpected angles.
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on October 16, 2012
"Where'd You Go Bernadette" is a very stealthy book of ideas and insights, wrapped in a delectable froth of humor, nonsense, mystery and suspense. Tucked into that enviable combination is a moving story of unconditional love between parent and child, and a surprisingly sure and intimate portrait of what it looks and feels like when someone loses touch with their central identity. All in a book that you could cheerfuly knock back as easy beach reading. A truly terrific book.

So many others here have already described the plot better than a back cover summary could do, so I won't duplicate their efforts but will just skip to my reactions to the writing and the story.

It took me a while to decide whether Bernadette Fox was a contemptible, self-absorbed elitist with epic anger management issues, or my new hero. By the end of the book (okay, midway) I'd concluded she's probably not quite either, but I was leaning very heavily toward the latter. I started out feeling a teensy bit defensive and offended, and trying to figure whether I was supposed to be a good guy or a bad guy in Bernadette's world. Then I decided I didn't care, and enjoyed the ride. As a parent who once very deliberately chose a "Subaru school" over a "Mercedes school" (as the socially insecure fundraisers for Bernadette's daughter, Bee's, private school characterize them ), I found myself alternately bristling at and howling with empathic glee over Semple and Bernadette's scorn for the ideas of community, and the more mindless examples of PCism and the more judgmental forms of ersatz earth-motherhood. Even in the clutches of what turns out to have been a long, slow free-fall of existential crisis, depression, anxiety, neuroses and agoraphobia, reclusive Bernadette is smarter, braver, more creative, more honest, more demanding of integrity, more nurturing, funnier and MUCH more fun than any of the other moms at school.

She also has a distinctly individualistic and social Darwinist world view that is not always compassionate (a term Bernadette scorns, apparently confusing it with weakness, fuzzy-headednes or pandering) or altogether likeable (especially in her crazier, more bitterly misanthropic moments, even if these are very funny), but for the most part it's highly principled and very frequently right on. Agree or disagree with Bernadette, love her or loathe her, if she doesnt make you stop and think, you've missed something. Sample's and Bernadette's championship of traditional education, hard and fast objective standards, self-reliance, individual creativity and the radical idea that it is legitimate to treat extraordinarily talented contributors to society (or a company) as superior to those of mediocre ability will ring a bell with those who have read Aym Rand's "The Fountainhead," and presumably it's no coincidence that Bernadette is an iconoclastic architect. Fortunately for all of us, Bernadette is more three-dimensionally human, more vulnerable, mouthier and infinitely more fun than Howard Roarke. Unfortunately for her, she's even less suited to live in a world that contains other people than Roarke is. When Bernadette's overly withdrawn and idiosyncratic world collides disasterously with the busy-body, run of the mill, overly interventionist world around her, something has to go -- and it turns out to be Bernadette.

This epistolary style book is a crazy, outsized, hilarious romp composed of emails between snooty and self-deluded mothers at the private school, said mothers and "blackberry abatement specialists," Bernadette and the India-based e-personal assistant that she has hired for 75 cents per hour to make her dentist appointments, old newspaper stories, excerpts from a TEDTalk by Bernadette's software rockstar husband, police reports, ship's logs, school news bulletins, parent communications from a PTSD specialist, FBI profiles, hospital bills, apocalyptic weather reports; you name it, all tied together with interpolations by Bernadette's very poised 14 year old daughter, Bee. Bee is probably the only reliable narrator in the book, and she's a lovely creation: smart, motivated, aware, with a highly developed BS meter, but warm, enthusiastic, full of goofy inside jokes, and open to wonder, surprise and pain despite her maturity. Bee is at once a matter of fact, irreverent and deeply sympathetic guide through the events that lead to her mother's disappearance. Ultimately it is the laser -like focus of mother and daughter on each other that propels the story, and gives coherence to Bernadette's seemingly fractured character. Even when you don't know whether or not you should be pulling for Bernadette, you know you are pulling for Bee -- which is perhaps what makes this otherwise philosophically complex book an easy, straight- forward read that you won't want to put down.
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on August 20, 2013
I really wanted to read a funny book. I thought the story was very sad. Just imagine a women deeply depressed, horribly lonely probably maniac and a story gets written and categorized as a humor novel..oh yes, and her husband acts out selfishly along with her "supportive infrastructure"...sound great to you; read this one and laugh all you want, but not what not what I find funny.
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on September 22, 2013
I guess I am on the other side of the coin here more or less in thinking that what was touted as one of the better books of last year and a great summer read was in fact quite average. I work for Microsoft and appreciated the references to the company--I even found some of them to be somewhat accurate. I also liked the witty sarcasm Semple inserted when it came to living in Seattle--I experienced for 15 years the slow drivers, the rain, the extreme politeness, and many other of her observations. But when it came down to it, I just didn't think the book was super well written. It was surely no great piece of literature--that I think everyone can agree with. But I thought it bogged down in places and proved to be somewhat burdensome in others. The story is about a woman named Bernadette who is the wife of a Microsoft executive living in Seattle in a totally bizarre house. They have one daughter after many miscarriages who goes to a second rate private school but is accepted to Choate where her dad went. The book meanders through Bernadette's life, her difficult co-existence with neighbors she really doesn't have much in common with, the distance she feels from her husband and vice versa, and her eventual disappearance after a set of crazy circumstances. The book reads quickly in most places and can be gotten through in one to two sittings--although as I mentioned it does bog down in several places. I recommend it for those who like chick-lit, those who work at Microsoft, and anyone who wants a mindless read about living in Seattle. I don't highly recommend it.
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It's rare that I start out a review by quoting the book's first line. But this first line - a description of Bernadette's daughter's progressive school - is a true litmus test of whether a reader will love this book...or not.

"Galer Street School is a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet."

As soon as I read that line, I was IN. This is just a fabulous novel, a subtle comic satire of a world that's grown just a teensy bit "complicated." The key narrator is Bee - a 15-year old who tests off the charts for grit and poise. She is the daughter of the eponymous Bernadette, the winner of the MacArthur genius grant for architecture, and her husband Elgie, a Microsoft company man who achieved his moment of fame with a rousing TED talk on robotics.

Poor Bernadette. She's stuck in Seattle "where women are `gals', people are `folks,' a little bit is a `skosh', if you're tired you're `logo'. Here in the tech capital of the world, she rails against four-way intersections that inevitably turn into five-way intersections, gauche-looking Craftsman homes, homeless people and fake compassion and the "gnats" - mothers of her daughter Bee's schoolmates.

Nothing escape Maria Semple's clever eye. The author delightfully skewers a bunch of sacred cows: politically correct private schools, overly protective mothers, Microsoft culture and domination, architectural narcissism, born-agains, the psychiatric establishment, self-help groups like Victims against Victimhood, and a whole lot more.

Through several devices - letters, e-mails, correspondence with a psychiatrist, FBI memos and more - Maria Semple provides a window into one family - Elgie, Bernadette and Bee - who are striving to maintain their own individuality while connecting together.

The novel never sacrifices its characters in its bulls-eye satire. There are parts of the book that are downright poignant and others that make us turn a mirror back onto ourselves. It will take its place as one of my favorite reads of 2012.
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on February 1, 2013
I rarely review things, but I felt I had to with this book. It is my hope that I'm saving others from wasting several hours of their lives. Unfortunately, it is too late for myself. I honestly strongly wonder if some of the positive reviews were paid for in some capacity - this book is just not good. I wanted to like it because I enjoy a break from serious literature with a quirky, fun, light read. This was indeed a light read, but it was not otherwise any fun at all. I couldn't get past how unbelievably preposterous it was - the plot was ludicrous.

*Mild spoilers ahead*
1. Bernadette has always been incredibly eccentric. She's always doing wacky and eccentric things and has been for years... and her husband appears happy and loving at the beginning. Then she does a few other mildly eccentric antics that are entirely in keeping with her character for the last 20 years of her life, and only NOW he thinks she's lost it and wants to have her committed? The straws that break the camel's back for her husband are antics that pale in comparison to other wacky things she's done. But NOW she's a lunatic. Ridiculously contrived.
2. Her annoying neighbor who is nothing but a tremendous and unreasonable PITA all the way through has an enormous change of heart and is the who helps Bernadette? Not believable, and also very contrived.
3. Her husband is a bigwig at Microsoft - we're told he is truly at the top of the totem pole. And yet, he develops an extremely close friendship and confidence in his secretary? What?? Few professionals at that level would ever put such things at risk and be so unethical. And it is not in keeping with his character as previously portrayed for us. Nor would this secretary ever say such ludicrous things and personal statements, and discuss her weird cult-like support group to her superior in such quickness. This plot line comes way out of the blue. Sure, the boss/secretary relationship happens, but it's very cliche, and it's totally not believable at all in this instance.
4. Where Bernadette actually ended up being discovered? Too ridiculous to even put into words.

Beside other just plain stupid plot lines, it just wasn't a fun read. It really didn't have that quirkiness/fun that I wanted in a book, it was not funny at all, and it even got pretty depressing in the end. Please do yourself a favor and skip this one.
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