Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple first called my attention thanks to its wonderful and colorful cover after being shortlisted for the Women’s Prize this year. Later on, I saw a review by Leah who I really trust in terms of feminine and feminist stories and I decided to ask for a review copy. The lovely people from Orion Books kindly sent me a hardback to review!

A compilation of the novel's many cover designs.

A compilation of the novel’s many cover designs.

From Goodreads:

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.

The first thing that makes you realize Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a special book is its structure. As I started reading it, I found an exchange of emails and notes among those who would become the novel’s main characters. I remember when I first encountered this technique some years ago in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and thought it was a crazy idea, but after a few courses on postmodernist literature, I find myself quite comfortable with it. I tought it was a great way to get to know the characters because it almost felt like gossip. Even though many omniscient narrators do tells us intimate things about characters, it is much more entertaining and interesting to hear it all from themselves. However, I would like to highlight this structure is not kept during the whole novel because it can be tiresome.

The characters were amazing and a little over the top. When I thought of reading the book I tought the main character was Bernadette, I mean, she is the character title. But it was not so clear once I started reading. It felt as if Bernadette was the link between all the characters who happen to know each other in – apparently – Seattle’s close-knitted and familiar society. But Bernadette puts all the fun. Her witty remarks, over-the-top behavior and her strange yet admirable way of seeing the world are contagious. This is not your typical funny novel, this is not Christopher Moore, yet you can sense comedy in every page. No doubt Sample did it: she was a writer for American TV shows such as Arrested Development.

Regarding female characters, I really appreciated the description of the complex mother-daughter relationship, specially when it referred to Bee not really thinking her mother could have been something before being her mother. I think it is very difficult to get to know our mother’s lives before they became our mothers and we automatically think they have not changed. At the same time, there is this period in your teens when you think your parents know nothing and you know everything and the novel revisits that period through Bee’s characters and how it affects Bernadette. Being a daughter and not a mother myself, I really appreciated that insight and I’ll think twice before taking for granted how amazing and lovely my own mom is. Finally all I have to say about Bernadette is “Wow!”. She is a complex, extravagant, mysterious and psychologically challenging character, but a great mother and wife who – as many people nowadays – let the world bring her down. What I found most interesting at the beginning of the novel is how I took for granted she was a simple soccer mom with no other apparent interest than her own daughter. It really takes the reader into a journey to get to know the real Bernadette and it challenges our assumptions on motherhood and women’s role as stay-at-home moms.

So, I enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette? a lot and I’m very thankful to Leah and everyone who said this was a book I’d like. The style, prose and characters earned the novel its place on the Women’s Prize shortlist and although it was a great reading, I don’t think had I read before the winner was annouced I would have placed my bets on this one.

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