Friday, November 15, 2013

Fiction Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Last night, I had a wonderful experience attending an event sponsored by my local bookstore, Hockessin Bookshelf. It is a book discussion group called Eat, Drink, Read, held at a local shop owned by a chef. The chef cooks dinner for the group – a dinner based on the book! – and the participants discuss the book while enjoying their meal. It was a fabulous evening – great company, good discussion, and amazing food, a winning combination. The book we discussed last night was Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, and everyone enjoyed both the book and the discussion (and the dinner!).

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a completely unique novel filled with hilarious satire yet also warmth.  The entire novel is told through a wide variety of media, including e-mails sent between the characters, letters, receipts, and other documents. Bernadette is the mother of a daughter, Bee, who is in 8th grade in a small private school in Seattle. Having moved from L.A. twenty years ago, Bernadette has still not acclimated to life in the Pacific Northwest. She’s something of a shut-in, avoiding interacting with other people as much as possible, though she clearly loves Bee and is a good mother to her.

Bee’s husband, Elgie, is a big shot at Microsoft (a rock star who gave the 4th most popular TED talk ever, as one of his admirers gushes), working in its iconic Seattle campus where he clearly does feel at home. Elgie, Bernadette, and Bee live in a ramshackle building on a hill that used to be a girls’ reform school. Under Bernadette’s neglect, the house is falling apart, but she has a new approach to life – she has hired herself a virtual assistant in India who does everything for her from arranging for yard work to making a dinner reservation to ordering her prescriptions (we all agreed last night that we’d like our own virtual assistants!).

We know from the first page of the novel that Bernadette disappeared two days before Christmas, so all of these various documents that make up the novel go back and gradually fill in the blanks as to what happened in the weeks and months (and years) leading up to this upsetting event. Hearing from the different characters’ perspectives helps to slowly build a picture of who Bernadette is and what she’s done. Though her actions seem odd at first, learning about her past helps the reader to feel some empathy for Bernadette.

Plot summary alone doesn’t do this novel justice; what you can’t tell from this description is that this book is hilariously, laugh-out-loud funny and extremely clever.  Semple’s satire focuses, in turn, on the Pacific Northwest in general and Seattle in particular, Microsoft’s unique corporate climate, being a parent with school-age kids in today’s world, and even modern life in general. As a parent, I loved the satire about schools and over-involved parents and was laughing right from the very first page, where Bee’s report card shows that the worst grade a child at Galer Street School can get is a W for Working Toward Excellence!

Here’s how Bernadette describes Seattle in a letter to an old L.A. colleague:

“Greetings from sunny Seattle, where women are “gals,” people are “folks,” a little bit is a “skosh,” if you’re tired you’re “logy,” if something is slightly off it’s “hinky,” you can’t sit Indian-style but you can sit “crisscross applesauce,” when the sun comes out it’s never called “sun” but always “sunshine,” boyfriends and girlfriends are “partners,” nobody swears but someone occasionally might “drop the f-bomb,” you’re allowed to cough but only into your elbow, and any request, reasonable or unreasonable, is met with “no worries.”

Have I mentioned how much I hate it here?”

I wondered if this book would appeal mainly to parents of school-aged kids, but there were plenty of non-parents in the group last night who thoroughly enjoyed the satire also. While the humor in this novel is a big part of its attraction, that’s not all it has to offer; the novel  is also clever and warm and even a bit of a mystery. The author spotlights family relationships, using satire to deal with some very serious issues. Relationships between mother and daughter, between spouses, and between father and daughter are all explored here. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, as did all of our book discussion participants (I think the lowest rating out of 5 was a 3 and many gave it a 4 or 5). After such a unique, clever, and hilarious novel, I look forward to seeing what Semple comes up with next.

326 pages, Back Bay Books (Little, Brown & Company)
P.S. If you read the novel, do not skip over “Dear Mountain Room Parents” in the back, after the acknowledgments. This essay by Semple, originally published in The New Yorker, had me – and my husband – laughing hysterically. The phrase “nondenominational potato prints” still cracks us up!

P.P.S. Oh, and we heard last night, that this novel is being made into a movie! Semple herself is writing the screenplay, since she used to write for TV (Mad About You, Ellen, Arrested Development) before she became a novelist. Can't wait!


  1. Oh my goodness, while I was reading this I was thinking it would make such a good movie! Glad to here it will be and Semple is doing the screenplay herself :D

    Love your review!

  2. Wow! This one sounds great. I'm definitely going to put it on my list. It's funny, because it was on a list that I got in my email today, so it was already on my mind.