Where Did You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Is there anything Semple doesn’t (justly) scorn in this most wonderful novel? From schools to neighborhoods, administrators to parents, Microsoft to architecture, she has a brilliant quip for it all. I’ve longed for the boy who says of the emporer, “But, he isn’t wearing any clothes!” and all the time he’s been disguised as the author, Maria Semple.

The novel is told from Bernadette’s daughter’s point of view, in the form of documents written by Bernadette’s husband, their neighbor, the school principal, psychiatrists and policemen. They all take part in telling the tale behind Bernadette’s disappearance, an unexpected leave of absence from her day to day life. 
I kept telling my friends at school, to whom I’d given the book for World Book Night 2014, “I love Bernadette! I can totally relate to her,” and they’d look at me askance while asking, “Have you finished the book yet?” But I didn’t need to finish the book to relate to her utter frustration with her career, her feeling of no longer being productive, her annoyance with people.

“You want to know the coolest part?” (of their planned trip to Antarctica) Mom chimed in. “There isn’t any assigned seating at the dining room, and they have tables for four. That means the three of us can sit down and if we pile the extra chairs with our gloves and hats, nobody can sit with us!” 

Dad and I looked at each other, like, Is she joking? 

“And penguins,” Mom quickly added. “I’m wildly excited about all those penguins.”

That whole scene makes total sense to me; I’m much less interested in new adventures than I am concerned about having to sit through a whole dinner with strangers who hope I’ll be entertaining. I don’t want to be entertaining, I want to be left alone. Hence one of my many connections to Bernadette.
I also love that she chose an abandoned girls’ school as their family home in Seattle, never mind that it leaks rust colored water into spaghetti pots or has blackberry brambles which infuriate an already infuriating neighbor. I loathe McMansions, homes with no personality at all on the inside, but a perfect facade on the outside.
But, this book is not about me. It’s about Bernadette, a hurt and frustrated architect, her gifted daughter, Bee, and her Microsoft employed husband who’s working so hard he’s never home. He does, however, have time for his admin, Soo-Lin. 
And when he has to, he finds the time to be with his daughter as she searches for her mother. Somewhere, she is sure, in Antarctica. 
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25 thoughts on “Where Did You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple”

  1. Oh I am SO with you (and Bernadette) about piling the coats on that fourth chair. I feel exactly the same! I have this book waiting for me to read it and I can see that I really MUST get to it soon! Lovely review.

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  2. I loved this book and knew you would as well 🙂 And, I agree – pile on the coats (this seat is taken!). Your review was excellent – it makes me want to re-read this fantastic story ASAP.

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  3. I've avoided this book because of all the hype surrounding it, but now that I've read your review, I have to admit, it may well be my kind of read. She sounds like an intriguing and very relatable character.

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  4. I've been meaning to finish this one. I started the audio and never finished it. Perhaps this summer. This time I'll keep close attention to her quirks and think of you.

    I love that she chose an old home too. I reealllly wanted to see that house she built (the eco one).

    I felt bad for Bernadette (the little I read). I wanted to protect her and tell people to cut her some slack.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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  5. It makes me smile, litlove, how we share this similarity with Bernadette. How well I remember your story of going to some dinner party (in the rain, I believe?) and needing to be social while Not Enjoying It Very Much. I was so with you in spirit.

    I suspect you will enjoy Bernadette as much as I do.

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  6. Isn't it funny how when a book gets many accolades, I either avoid it or despise it? I guess I'm never one to go with the masses, yet this was a delightful read in so many ways. The sarcasm, the wit, the writing is enough alone without being enamored by the characters at the same time.

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  7. I suspect that many of us bibliophiles are really, down deep, introverts. Which is why that dining room comment makes total sense to those of us who dread being accosted by well-meaning people. If only they'd stay on their own side of the room. 😉

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  8. Hmmm, I think for me this would be a bit hard to follow on audio. The narrative jumps around so much, from document to document. Well, maybe you're a far better listener than I, but you might like to try it with a printed page.

    Isn't that fun about her house? I loved how the neighbor insisted the blackberry brambles be removed, all to such a debacle (which at least she had the grace to admit near the end of the novel).

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  9. I listened to the book on audio and while I thought it was good, I think it would've been more enjoyable had I read the print edition. But, oh, how I loved her rants about the Pacific Northwest and Microsoft! Hilarious!!

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  10. For some reason I thought this was one of those Gone Girl type books. It seems like there is a ton of them out there now, and so haven't really paid attention to it.

    But your review sounds delightful and I definitely want to pick this up sometime soon.

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  11. Absolutely hilarious! And, I felt it had authenticity as she lives there. How about all that part about one hair color in Seattle: gray! It all cracked me up (not that I haven't thought about being more natural myself).

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  12. Oh, Gone Girl annoyed me to no end! I still can't understand the praise that it received and continues to receive.

    This is a wholly original book, with wonderful sarcasm and wit.

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  13. I loved this book, and I didn't expect to. I just found the snark and the dissatisfaction and the intelligence so wonderful. Just so many good things. I ate it up.

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  14. Not sure how I almost missed this post! Thanks for the “Bernadette refresher”! I also enjoyed the book a great deal, for a variety of reasons.

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  15. I think two of the reasons it resonated with me are because of the way Bernadette is an introvert, and quirky at that; also, I loved the way Semple presented school administrators and parents. Hilarious to someone whose been in the field of education for almost thirty years.

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