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

When Bernadette’s daughter Bee requests a family trip to Antarctica as a reward for her perfect grades, Bernadette tries to oblige.  But her hatred of living in Seattle, along with her propensity to act like a shut-in makes it difficult for her to follow through on her promises.  Days before the family is poised to leave for their trip, Bernadette vanishes.  But Bee is certain her mother would never abandon her, and begins to piece together what happened through a series of documents, including emails, letters, and notes from the FBI and doctors.

Readers, what can I say? I wanted to like this one.  Reviews are largely positive, and the promise of a scathing, satirical novel with a mystery at is core was more than I could resist.  But the result didn’t work for me, and ultimately I was let down by this novel.

It starts with the issue of the characters.  Firstly, there are so many characters and so many chapters with different points of view that it’s a little hard to keep track of them all.  Then there’s the fact that our titular character Bernadette is really funny but also kind of the worst.  She’s brilliant and often hilarious, but she’s also totally vindictive, completely self-involved, and has a serious case of entitlement (which feels echoed by Semple herself).

Although the scrapbook style narrative is interesting and works very well for the most part, it sort of falls apart in the final third of the book, as Bee’s search for her mother intensifies.  While I certainly enjoyed aspects of the mother-daughter relationship, I felt that Bee’s unswerving devotion to her mother’s goodness, despite all evidence to the contrary, was a little bit of a strain on credulity.

Part of the problem is that the novel lost its novelty to me about halfway through.  What started out as pretty great deadpan humor with a dash of absurdity took a nosedive into condescending territory too early.  As the condescension increased, my interest in the novel’s outcome decreased.  By the end of the book, I just couldn’t be bothered to care.

This one’s a mixed bag.  It’s going to find a large readership, I think, but I got tired of how smug the book was.  Still, it’s an interesting example of how mixed media narratives work, and it should be a hit with the book club circuit.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple.  Back Bay Books: 2013. Borrowed copy. 

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