Review of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

ImageThere are so many things I love about this book.  I loved the humor and the snarkiness, I loved the making fun of the private school moms, Seattle, and Microsoft, and I loved the characters of Bee and Bernadette.  Granted, Bernadette is a hard character to like.  I suspect some people will find her very unsympathetic, and if that’s you, you won’t like this book.

Bernadette Fox is the mother of 15-year-old Bee, and wife to Elgin, a Microsoft exec.  She’s also a genius architect, but a Very Bad Thing happened before Bee was born that ended her career.  She also has some combination of anxiety, OCD, and maybe a touch of Asperger’s, which means social interaction is a real challenge, and she doesn’t fit in AT ALL with the neighborhood moms.  They hate her because she doesn’t bake or volunteer at the school.

The book begins with Bee telling us that her mom has disappeared.

The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, “What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.”  You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question.  When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, “The truth is complicated.  There’s no way one person can ever know everything about another person.”

Mom disappears into think air two days before Christmas without telling me?  Of course it’s complicated.  Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.

It doesn’t mean I can’t try.

The story then rewinds a bit with Bee announcing that because of her perfect grades, she’s claiming the “anything she wants” reward her parents promised her (what were they thinking?).  Her prize?  A family trip to Antarctica.  Bernadette and Elgin say yes, but then Bernadette starts thinking about what it will mean to be cooped up on a ship with a group of strangers for a month.  Will there be seating assignments at dinner?

Some readers may find Bernadette self-centered, but I really sympathized with her anxiety issues, and most of the time she does her best to function in a way that meets the needs of her daughter.  And Bee loves her mom even though she doesn’t cook or care for the house, because when Bee needs her, she’s there.

Unfortunately, Bernadette’s anxiety escalates, and to escape from the world she puts more and more of her life into the hands of Manjula Kapoor, a “virtual” assistant in India.  This unseen assistant becomes her closest friend.  Her emails to this woman become increasingly funny – in a sad way– as Bernadette spews out all of her emotional turmoil in these emails (sadly, Manjula’s responses are strictly professional).

I said I sympathized with Bernadette.  I suspect I fall somewhere on the social anxiety spectrum myself, because even the idea of dealing with prep school moms and forced dinner assignments gives me a rash.  Bernadette had me at:

Of the million reasons I don’t want to go to Antarctica, the main one is that it will require me to leave the house.  You might have figured out by now that’s something I don’t much like to do.  But I can’t argue with Bee.  She’s a good kid.  She has more character than Elgie and I and the next ten guys combined.  Plus she’s applying for boarding school next fall, which she’ll of course get into because of said A’s.  So it would be in pretty bad taste to deny Buzzy this.

The only way to get to Antarctica is by cruise ship.  Even the smallest one has 150 passengers, which translates into me being trapped with 149 other people who will uniquely annoy the hell out of me with their rudeness, waste, idiotic questions, incessant yammering, creepy food requests, boring small talk, etc.  Or worse, they might turn their curiosity toward me, and expect pleasantry in return.  I’m getting a panic attack just thinking about it.  A little social anxiety never hurt anyone, am I right?

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this book, but I can tell you when it was over, I wanted to cry that I had to put this book down and leave the Foxes behind.

Where’d You Go was included on the 2013 Women’s Prize shortlist.

  6 comments for “Review of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

  1. June 22, 2013 at 9:42 am

    Great review- have heard many good things about this book-thanks!

  2. June 22, 2013 at 10:53 am

    I have got to read this! I think I’m going to try the audio edition. I’ve heard it’s great!

  3. Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader
    June 22, 2013 at 11:28 am

    I loved this book right to bits! So funny and intelligent and moving. 🙂

  4. June 23, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    I really liked this one too. One of the things I found really funny was that Bernadette was supposed to be the crazy one but the story really showed the absurdity of some of the other characters who were supposed to be “normal.”

  5. June 24, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    I’ve wondered about this book! Mainly because the cover is so great 🙂

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