It’s finally time for my first full book review of the year, featuring the last book I read in 2020! To be honest, I only read Where’d You Go, Bernadette because I heard part of it was set on Antarctica and I still hadn’t marked that continent off my reading challenge. Also, since I knew this book is very popular, I expected it wouldn’t take too long to read (I was right about that). With the world being what it is, I ended up suddenly having New Year’s Eve off from work, and I spent a few hours finishing this book up just in time to ring in 2021.
I actually have a lot more to say about this book than I expected; I can see why it has such a following, but there are a few key aspects that I am not a fan of. Read on for the full explanation!
About the Book
Title: Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Author: Maria Semple
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Synopsis: Bernadette Fox has vanished.
When her daughter Bee claims a family trip to Antarctica as a reward for perfect grades, Bernadette, a fiercely intelligent shut-in, throws herself into preparations for the trip. But worn down by years of trying to live the Seattle life she never wanted, Ms. Fox is on the brink of a meltdown. And after a school fundraiser goes disastrously awry at her hands, she disappears, leaving her family to pick up the pieces–which is exactly what Bee does, weaving together an elaborate web of emails, invoices, and school memos that reveals a secret past Bernadette has been hiding for decades. Where’d You Go Bernadette is an ingenious and unabashedly entertaining novel about a family coming to terms with who they are and the power of a daughter’s love for her mother.
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Source: my local public library
Find it on bookshop.org and support local book sellers.
For those who would like the Reader’s Digest version of this review, here are the bullet points I shared on Instagram:
- Great pace
- Love-to-hate characters actually have a solid semi-redemption arc
- Poor language choices
- I wish there were more penguins
For the most part, I enjoyed this book. The format is unique: it is told almost entirely through emails and other forms of written communication, with occasional input directly from Bee, Bernadette’s daughter, who is compiling everything. This is a wonderful way to get to know multiple sides of people, especially those who behave one way around one group of people and another way around others. For example, Bernadette, who admits outright that she does not like people generally and who tends to be terse or avoidant of most people in social settings, writes longwinded emails to her assistant – which totally makes sense! She doesn’t have anyone else to talk to all day, and she may be uncomfortable in social settings, but she still has things to say and convey. I love that we get to dive into things like this with multiple characters because of the book’s ingenious format.
There are several things that I take issue with, however. First of all, who lets their child pick whatever they want with absolutely no boundaries as a reward for good grades in middle school? The concept of a child convincing her parents to go on a cruise to Antarctica is just completely absurd for anyone who isn’t outrageously wealthy. And, yes, we eventually do find out that Bernadette is immensely wealthy, but still, this is just too much. Talk about economic privilege. Second, I have to call out the language. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a more sensitive reader than most when it comes to language, and this crossed the line for me. The amount of foul language alone made me unable to give this a full five stars. The last point I take issue with is the way that religion is touched upon throughout the story. It just rubbed me the wrong way every time. Bernadette makes several references to Eastern, particularly Hindu, religious aspects, and Bee attends a church youth group with a friend. Neither are fully dealt with, and I’m not even sure that they had much of an impact on the story at all. Bee’s experiences seem realistic for someone raised atheist, but every effort seemed to be made to cheapen anything related to legitimate spirituality. I don’t see why these elements were added to story at all, when they clearly played no part in the bigger story the author wanted to tell. I would love to hear a more detailed critique/evaluation of this topic.
I was surprised at the amount of buildup we see to Bernadette’s disappearance. I expected her to be gone by the second chapter, but she stuck around through a good chunk of the book. Trying to figure out how and where she disappeared was fun. I had some theories, but they were mostly way off base. I do wish that we got to see more of Antarctica itself. Knowing that part of the story is set there was the most compelling reason I decided to read this at all. A few penguins do make an appearance, but it would have been fun to see more.
As for the love-to-hate characters mentioned in my mini-review, there is a lot that I could say about them. There are a lot of people who do not like Bernadette, and the author goes out of her way to make the reader feel excessively sympathetic toward Bernadette despite not hiding her own shortcomings. So, there are two other moms from Bee’s school who end up in the “love-to-hate” villain category. One starts out unwaveringly detestable, and the other (her minion) somewhat understandable. Somewhere along the way, however, the roles switch. The character who started out so set on being abominable to Bernadette turns around and ends up being a reasonable – even kind! – human being by the end. The other unfortunately doesn’t know when to stop digging herself a hole and never learns to think for herself. She has so completely internalized the things that her friend says in the beginning that, even once her friend changes for the better, she remains dedicated to nothing but her own selfish impulses and a childish, false sense of self-righteousness. So on the one hand we have a very well done redemption arc – but twisted into it is the desolation of another’s potential for good.
Overall, this is a fun story for mature readers who can tune out moderate vulgarity and enjoy a mystery without high stakes. The book also looks at various types of relationships between neighbors, friends, colleagues, and family, and that gentle reminder of how we ought to treat one another is one of the greatest messages of the book. Honestly, I am surprised that this book is as big of a hit as it is, because I know there are a lot of people who would hate it; at the same time, I can why a lot of other people love it. I suppose that group is louder this time. It gets four stars from me.
Have you read Where’d You Go, Bernadette? When the movie came out last year, we couldn’t keep a single copy on the library shelves for months!
Tell me in the comments: If you could afford a cruise to Antarctica, would you do it?
Until the next chapter,