Book Review – Where’d you go, Bernadette, Maria Semple

If I ever tell you that a book you’ve mentioned is “On my list,” call me out on my bullshit. “On my list” is my way of saying “I’ll get to it when I get to it.” Which may well be never, given how long this imaginary list has grown. Where’d you go, Bernadette is one of those books that’s been on my list for a good long while, probably since it was released in 2012. My former roommate spoke pretty well of it, and I even checked it out to read on a flight. Instead, I found myself distracted by a magazine and, probably, sleep.

So it wasn’t until this past weekend that I finally told myself that I was going to finish this damned book. There was a hurricane sweeping towards San Antonio, and it seemed like there was a good chance it would be just me, my pets, and a flashlight alone in my little apartment. Before leaving work on Friday I checked out Where’d you go, Bernadette once more and vowed I’d get through it this time. And what do you know? I did!

I should probably mention, first and foremost, that San Antonio escaped the storm relatively unscathed. We got a little rain and a bit of wind, and nothing more. I wish I could say the same for Corpus Christi and Rockport, and for Houston. Texas is hurting right now. If you’re the giving type, now might be the time to look into local charities on the ground that are trying to get folks back on their feet.

Where’d you go, Bernadette is the story of prodigal mother Bernadette and her equally brilliant daughter Bee. It’s also a story about mental illness, though exactly what that illness is manages to fly under the radar. Depression? Anxiety? All we know is that Bernadette hasn’t been the same since Something happened to her back in L.A. She’s managed to be a great mother to Bee, but seems to have few redeeming qualities otherwise – she’s bitter, angry, and is so sick of people and of life in general that she’s outsourced her everyday tasks to a virtual assistant in India. Despite this, she manages to be a likable character. I’m still not entirely sure how Maria Semple did it. Maybe it’s because so many of the little aggravations that get Bernadette going are exactly that – aggravating. You can’t help but sympathize, for the most part. Traffic sucks, and nobody wants to eat at a shitty restaurant.

As for Bee, she’s almost too good to be true. Despite a childhood brush with serious illness, she’s managed to flourish almost to excess. She does well in school, she’s liked by her peers, adored by her parents, admired by her teachers. My one real complaint is that she never really stops excelling, even after Bernadette’s mysterious disappearance. Despite the loss of her best friend, there’s little actual change to Bee’s character. Even when she’s kicked out of boarding school and rejecting her father’s attempts at reconciliation, she’s pushing on, putting pieces of the puzzle together and finding answers. I had a hard time imagining that things wouldn’t turn out all right, after all, despite the family being thrown some major doozies.

Told in a sort of epistolary format, the story unfolds in the form of emails, journals, and letters, punctuated with the odd FBI report. The conflict is driven by ever-present gnats, as Bernadette has dubbed them, those hovering, agitating people who just seem to complicate things unnecessarily. Gnats bad, Bernadette (and Bee, of course) good. Easy enough, I guess. Only some of the gnats did mean well, and it’s apparent that they’ve all got their own troubles to deal with. Bernadette’s greatest persecutor manages to become her salvation in one unexpected twist.

The novel ends with the reunion you’d been led to expect, but leaves a lot of questions unanswered. There are still some major bridges to be crossed and consequences to be faced. But we don’t get to see that, which felt like a bit of a letdown. I rated Where’d you go, Bernadette 3/5 stars, but I’d say that it’s definitely worth a read. I burned through it once I got started and I can see myself rereading it in the future.

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