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

Some books are easy to review. Plot summary, praise, criticism, rating, done. Other books are like Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

I enjoyed reading this book tremendously and think you should read it too. But how can I convince you to do that without spoiling the humor and wit and surprise of the book? Maybe I should just link to this wonderfully spoiler-free review by my friend Mouse. Or maybe I should let the first page sell you on the book:

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 thin 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.

But that seems lazy. So instead, I’ll try listing five spoiler-free reasons that I really liked Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

1. It’s funny

That beginning might give you the impression that this is a melancholy book.  It is, in places, but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny. Bernadette’s daughter Bee tries to piece together her mother’s disappearance through a set of documents — e-mails, newsletters, memos, articles — and occasionally adds her own version of the events described in the documents. Eccentric, agoraphobic, brilliant, sarcastic Bernadette is an absolute force of nature. Her thoughts on Canadians alone are worth the price of the book.

2. It’s poignant

As we dig deeper into Bee’s collection of documents, we begin to discover the factors that triggered Bernadette’s eccentric behavior. While Bernadette is an exceptional person, the reasons for her agoraphobia and obsessive behavior will resonate with a lot of women — she’s faced career disappointments, health problems, and a sense of being stuck and adrift since following her husband to his lucrative job in Seattle.

3. It nails the alternative-private-school thing

As a young lass, I happened to attend a very hippie-crunchy-granola private school, the kind of place where students were not given report cards and were encouraged to work independently, choose our own assignments, and set our own schedules. Also, our gym class was called “Myg,” in order to alleviate even the hint of a suspicion that dodgeball might be played. Bee’s Galer Street School felt very familiar, and while I loved my hippie-crunchy-granola school, I also loved seeing this book poke gentle fun at some of the more ridiculous aspects of such schools.

4. Bee is awesome

The brilliant teenager is a tough character to pull off, and even some highly touted books fail to create a protagonist who is convincing as both a smart person and as a real teenager. All too often these characters come across as adults in teenage clothing. But Bee is a delight. She is incredibly bright without ever seeming older than her fourteen years.

5. It is full of surprises

Just when you think you’ve got these characters figured out, you’re thrown for a loop. Whether you buy some of the changes of heart would be a good topic for a book-club discussion, but I liked the way Where’d You Go, Bernadette? kept me on my toes.

Rating: Buy it

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One comment on “Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

  1. jtoufar says:

    I loved this book too. At first when I heard “she pieces her mother’s story together from a bunch of documents” I was iffy because I have read too many books where it feels choppy. But this was seamless and fitting I felt like.

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