Review: Where’d You Go Bernadette

Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

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Y’all know me—I rarely seek out brand new books by authors I’ve never heard of, especially anywhere near the time they’ve been released. But Melissa’s review of Where’d You Go Bernadette over at The Feminist Texan [Reads] made me reconsider, as did its inclusion on Book Riot’s Best Books of 2012 list. My temporal gap between publication and reading is usually a function of accessibility; I once had a hold on The Time Traveler’s Wife come in, six months after I placed it. Perfectly reasonable, given my place in line (somewhere in the hundreds?), but my appetite is easily distracted. But I had no such problem here, raiding the new bookshelf of my public library at home and then blazing through it in a day.

Where’d You Go Bernadette’s title is a very valid question. Bernadette Fox, once an up-and-coming eco-architect before that was even a thing, is now a Seattle housewife (if sprawling former all-girls’ schools count as houses) to Elgin Branch, a Microsoft big-shot whose TEDTalk on robotics has given him some notoriety, and mother to Bee, a smart preteen. When Bee receives straight As, again, she reminds her parents of their promise—if she got straight As all through middle school, they would do anything she wanted. And what Bee wants is to go to Antarctica. Her parents agree, but when the stress of their community and planning the trip gets to Bernadette, she vanishes, and Bee makes it her mission to discover her mother’s whereabouts, compiling the documents that make up the novel.

When I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I was overwhelmed by how utterly impregnable the novel was—there was simply no way for me to access it. Such a remark is not a commentary on the actual quality of the novel (I couldn’t get to the meat), but rather my personal relationship with the text. I was reminded of that upon reflecting on Where’d You Go Bernadette. While the novel boasts many things I should like—sprawling, weird houses, whip-smart, determined teenage girls, weird, prickly heroines—the novel seems to repulse me, in the sense that repulses my progress, not in the sense that it’s disgusting. The “broadly satirical” (to quote O) world of Where’d You Go Bernadette is built on vicious and sometimes quite arbitrary hierarchies, as perpetuated over and over again by Semple’s cast of characters. In reading it, I’m acutely aware that there’s not room for someone like me—it’s a bit like reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and having the otherwise avuncular narrative voice of C. S. Lewis tell me that I’m an unimaginative dolt for enjoying economics. And that’s different than reading something which disagrees with your core philosophies, which is a good exercise to test their strength. Rather, it’s an attitude inherent to the work, a very dim worldview that horrifies me even as Semple treats it as utterly matter-of-fact.

Perhaps it’s simply the fact that Where You’d Go Bernadette is broad comedy, with little room for the specific, character-based humor I prefer. Or perhaps its because I can’t find a character to throw my lot in with. I don’t expect characters, especially characters in comedy, to be perfect—that’s not interesting and, more to the point, it’s not funny. But I do expect them to be sympathetic. Semple explicitly doesn’t make Bernadette a sympathetic character, so I thought Bee would be a good choice, but that changes, too, as, understandably, the teenager reacts poorly to her mother’s disappearance and damages her own academic chances. (I actually chastised her out loud for this.) And then I thought her husband would be a good choice, but he arbitrarily makes an awful decision that comes out of left field and feels utterly disconnected with the character. While I did appreciate that Audrey, Bernadette’s main antagonist among the Seattle housewives, does evolve beyond a broad stroke of an ambitious, upper-class mother, I was still reminded of why I could never treat Umbridge as a particular threat. Antagonists who antagonize without any good reason are cartoonish and difficult to take seriously. But antagonists who antagonize because they think they’re the heroes of their own stories? Now that’s actually interesting.

But ultimately, I think Where’d You Go Bernadette fails with me because I can’t find humor in Bernadette’s situation. I don’t say this to imply that, if you enjoy this novel, you’re callous or cruel or insensitive; humor , especially humor as divisive and broadly drawn as Semple’s, is notoriously subjective. But I’ll give you an example of a moment that’s played for laughs that chills me to the bone. Late in the novel, one of Elgin’s letters talks about how decrepit their home is by discussing an incident when the young Bee offers her father up a plate of soggy floorboard, having dug through the kitchen floor. I can’t get that image out of my head, a little girl growing up in such squalor because her mother needs help—but she won’t get it because she’d rather avoid the real world entirely instead of facing up to her responsibilities. (As you can imagine, there’s no real discussion of mental illness in this novel.) True, the novel is about Bernadette’s journey away from being that woman, but that woman dominates the book. And as readable as she is, I’m scared of her.

Bottom line: Where’d You Go Bernadette is a broad satire that utterly misses the mark with me; I just can’t find humor in Bernadette’s situation. If you’d like.

I rented this book from the public library.

13 thoughts on “Review: Where’d You Go Bernadette

  1. “It’s a bit like reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and having the otherwise avuncular narrative voice of C. S. Lewis tell me that I’m an unimaginative dolt for enjoying economics.” Sigh, I know that feeling so well. It’s definitely much more alienating than simply reading something you disagree with.

    • Exactly. Disagreeing can be quite a pleasant thing—agree to disagree, but you don’t go after me as person in a way that is actually irrelevant to your point. It’s called being respectful. Of course, comedy does often trample on such boundaries, but at its own, highly subjective risk.

  2. I am very much someone who does not find humor in unpleasant circumstances. While I have been told (okay, yes, by my husband, who finds the Coen Brothers hilarious) that I am dour and take things too seriously, it definitely impacts my reaction to books such as this one!

    • Ugh, I hate it when someone says “Oh, but it’s just a book!”—as if stories aren’t the way humans organize their thinking and can’t possibly affect how we look at the world. You have to be thoughtful about what you consume. Yikes.

  3. Wonderful review. I am intrigued now, but not enough to read this one. I am tired of callous humor and so-called irony in contemporary fiction. Was wondering what all the fuss was about as there are 1500+ hold on this book at my library.

    • Congratulations on your inimitable curiosity & openness! If only we had more readers like you. Hell, we wouldn’t need books at all.

      • Jeremy, I’m in my sixties and have spent many years reading all kinds of things out of “curiosity”. I find there is not enough time to read the books I truly want to read, so I have to make choices about what goes on my TBR list. Sorry if this bugs you.

  4. Um, this review is AWESOME. Sorry the book didn’t quite work out for you.

    I have a feeling that if I’d read the book for the first time rather than listened to it, I also might have liked it less. Listening to it was a lot more fun (and character-accessible).

  5. I picked this up one day and read about 30 pages at the library to decide whether or not to check it out, and had the exact same reaction you did. Bernadette seemed kind of hateful, and I wasn’t eager to see what happened–I kind of wanted her to go away. But it was the heavy-handed treatment of the other mom that really made me dislike it–I could see that these people were going to be caricatures, and I wasn’t going to like them. I felt like the author didn’t even have much sympathy for the characters.

    • I think author sympathy for their characters separates out comedy that works for me and comedy that doesn’t. My favorite comedies—Hot Fuzz is leaping to mind—can be silly and violent, but they still are deeply invested in their characters. I can’t remember where I read or heard this, but someone once said that good comedic characters take their situations deadly serious, which is why their situations are funny to us.

  6. Pingback: Review: Mermaids in Paradise | The Literary Omnivore

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