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

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The story of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is told through pieces of evidence and clues such as e-mail conversations, newspaper clippings, reports from the FBI, and letters. The plot of the novel does not get lost in this unconventional method of storytelling. A novel that is a collection of excerpts like this one can have the tendency to appear lazy, but in the case of this novel, Semple was able to highlight her ability to weave together a story excellently and use different voices effectively.

Bee Branch is an excellent student at a school that takes parent participation very seriously. Her mother, Bernadette, however, despises nothing more than being in the company of her fellow parents. Bernadette has a personality that may be described as antisocial. She avoids people she’s expected to interact with because no one seems to be good enough for her standards. The persistent call for parents’ involvement in her daughter’s school is a constant bugging thing in her life that she tries to avoid as much as she can. She just can’t stand the petty, mundane, simplemindedness of her Seattle neighborhood.

One day, as Bee presents her excellent report card to her parents, she tells them of her request for a reward: a trip to Antarctica. Bernadette and her husband, Elgin, agree to give their daughter her wish. The family goes on planning for their trip for weeks, but Bernadette is also secretly planning to avoid the trip at the last minute. Bernadette loves her daughter, but there are just some things that are too much for her anxieties to handle.

Most of the e-mail conversations shown in the novel occur between Bernadette and her hired online personal assistant—a certain Manjula Kapoor from India. These little e-mail snippets contain some of the most humorous parts of the novel. It highlights Bernadette’s eccentricity and pushes the story forward. Bernadette has gotten herself this virtual personal assistant in order to avoid exhausting human interactions. Manjula manages all of her transactions and finds the solution to all of her neurotic, very specific requests.

Bernadette’s snobbish, holier-than-thou attitude is a thing that her neighbors and fellow parents dislike about her. They see her as eccentric. As Bernadette’s attitude becomes less and less easy to understand, certain events happen and lead to a breakdown. Bernadette ends up going missing just before the Antarctica trip.

Through newspaper clippings, Bernadette’s past experiences are revealed. The readers are given the story of how Bernadette ended up living in the Seattle neighborhood she seems to despise so much. She used to be an architect who had a temporary brush with acclaim and success but retreated from all of it.

Bee finds her mother in quite an unexpected place, and in this place, Bernadette seems to have found an environment where she could be left alone to be comfortable and where she could use her genius into something extraordinary and exciting to her.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a quirky, hilarious, and heartfelt book. It will keep its readers entertained with its lighthearted representation of the pettiness that can occur in everyday life. It is about the hilarity that can be found in eccentricities, self-centeredness, and the clashing of different personalities.

 

Written by:

Vochelle Sia, a writer. She likes to read, draw, paint on her free time.

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