Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

By Maria Semple, A Suprisingly Funny and Energetic Story Considering It's Basically About A Touchy Recluse

I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette? with my book club after being recommended this book by a friend of mine and then my cousin. Apparently Maria Semple’s daughter is my niece’s classmate. Plus they live in Seattle, where the book is set, and my cousin’s husband used to work for Microsoft, which is the employer of the husband in the book.

The book is told from the perspective of Bee, a young and very smart girl, but it’s really about Bernadette, her mother. Bernadette is a difficult, eccentric, and does not get along with the other mothers at Bee’s private school. She’s also somewhat of a genius recluse, who basically goes off the deep end. Bee’s father, Elgin, is sort of a big deal at Microsoft. I have to give props to the author — for a story that’s basically about mental illness and an unlikable (or at least difficult to like) woman, the book is surprisingly heartwarming and funny.

A lot of the humor is wrapped up in satirizing the out of touch parents and lifestyles of this upper class private school and tech bubble, but it manages to do so with kind of a gentle, even endearing humor, even if Bernadette herself is somewhat caustic and biting. As the book progresses, you start to understand how Bernadette became the way she did, and it ends up being an entertaining and enjoyable journey.

That being said, out of principle, though, I think I chafed a little at husband character, who is framed as a charismatic and successful guy who is a loving husband and father. Personally, however, I think if you take a moment to consider it, his actions were kind of awful, but because he was sorry he got a free pass from both the author and the characters around him for reasons that I don’t really understand. I’m just saying, if he was a woman, he would never get away with what he did in the book, both in terms of his affair and what he tried to do to his wife. The reaction I got to this comment in my book club was, but the author is a woman, how could it be sexist?? To which my response is, well, that’s what it means to live in a patriarchal society — it means we all, men and women, buy into these ideas that men are more level-headed and their bad behaviors are more acceptable. But enough of the soapbox.

So, yeah, I had a hard time swallowing that, and also the whole random Asian mistress thing, which I hated since obviously I take offense to Asian women only being used as romantic side interests in stories. Sigh.

But, overall, I did think it was an enjoyable book when I stopped thinking too hard about it. It’s intelligent and well-crafted, even if the author herself seems to be subtlety influenced by more non-progressive ideas than she might realize.