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Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (5/5)

29 Jan

This book was everywhere a few years ago. Of course, I’m terrible at reading books when they’re popular so I’m only getting to it now. I remember at the time that it was billed as an early ‘New Adult’ book so that tinted what I thought it would be about. I’m happy to say it didn’t meet those ideas and ended up being more enjoyable than I thought.

Cover image via Goodreads

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

This book wasn’t what I was expecting, but in a good way. I heard it billed as ‘New Adult’ which I thought meant it would be about people in their 20s having moderate amounts of sex (more than is appropriate for YA) and swearing a lot. I guess I missed the boat on New Adult. Yet again, I struggle with my policy of not reading summaries from time to time. I was happy to see this book focusing on adults in their 40s but written with the same easy-reading style of a YA book. This is the perfect combination, in my opinion. I may have to seek out some more New Adult books. I loved the characters and it all seemed very real to me even though it was far-fetched beyond belief. I think I’m a convert.

Bee seemed a little unbelievable to me. She was fifteen but her actions seemed more like a nine or ten-year-old to me. I’m basing this off of my niece and maybe she’s mature for her age and Bee was spot on. Just my opinion. The other characters were wonderful and I loved them all. Bernadette was depressed, Elgin was oblivious, Audrey was a Stepford Wife, and Soo-Lin was waiting for her prince to come. They were all the people we know in some aspect of our lives and it was great to see them play out. At first, I thought Audrey was going to be a bit of a stereotype, but she grew on me as the book went on and in the end, I really liked her.

Bernadette was my favorite character. She would be a fun mom but it was also plain that she expected a lot of her daughter. Her balance of understanding and teaching was well done. The way the book was written showed that she was, on the inside, very different from how she projected herself on the outside. It was great to see how stark the difference is between what a person projects and what they mean to project. Those things can be very different.

Bernadette was easy to relate to. I think everyone feels they’re misrepresented at times or that their actions are misunderstood or misinterpreted. Her frustration was relatable. Bee gave her the benefit of the doubt, believing her and trusting in her, while others weren’t so gracious. It was interesting to see how she reacted to this.

Maria Semple
Photo via Goodreads

I loved hearing about the 20-Mile House. I thought that was fascinating and very cool to hear about the ways she used materials. I could see how infectious her work could be and why people were so interested in it. The story was wonderfully told, too, and I wanted that part to go on longer. But I understood it wasn’t a focus of the book, just some background.

Bee and boarding school was my least favorite plotline, especially with how it played out. I thought her going away was going to have something to do with Bernadette leaving, but it ended up being a dead-end and I don’t think it added anything to Bernadette nor Bee’s plot lines. I wish that part had been edited out.

My audiobook was narrated by Kathleen Wilhoite. She was amazing. I adored her. Her voices for everyone were great and her inflection made me want to turn this book on every chance I got. Maybe she made Bee sound a little younger than she is, but that’s minor. I would seek books narrated by her, it was that good. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the print version of this book as much as I enjoyed Wilhoite’s narration of it. I highly recommend the audio.

There was a lot of judging and presumptions in this book that led to bad decisions and a lot of drama. Audrey and Bernadette started out as enemies and ended up as allies. Soo-Lin was a sweet supporter at first and ended up being an annoying dreamer. Everyone had their own idea of Bernadette and what she needed and only one person was right. The book was about being who you needed and wanted to be, and not assuming things about other people, taking the time to ask them and talk about it instead.

Writer’s Takeaway: The letter format of this book was a great choice. I liked hearing the back-and-forth that went on and figuring out what happened in the time between letters. It also built tension because sometimes you didn’t know what happened and it would be a while before you found out more. I’m not sure it would work for my story, but it was great for this one and I think Semple applied it well.

This book was enjoyable. I originally gave it Four Stars, but I couldn’t think of anything I disliked about it as I wrote this review and changed my rating to Five out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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