Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom. Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic. To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.
Bernadette Fox, an award-winning genius architect turned unemployed, agoraphobic, misanthropic introvert, hires an Internet assistant from India to conduct all daily, basic, mundane chores – tasks which she has convinced herself she is no longer capable of performing. Her Microsoft-executive husband, also completely absorbed in his own importance, is ignorant of his wife’s “outsourcing” of her life, that is until the Indian assistant, Manjoula, turns out to be neither Indian or a virtual assistant (well, not the kind Fox thinks she has hired). When Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, produces the perfect report card, she declares that her promised reward will be a family trip to Antarctica. In the meantime, Audrey Griffen, a “Mercedes parent” from Bee’s private school, enabler-extraordinaire to her doper son, and neighbour from hell is raising cane (or perhaps raising blackberry bushes would be a better expression). And the plot thickens.
What I Liked: Semple’s humourous portrayal of the complications we’ve laden on previously simple routines in our effort to “make life easier” with advanced technology is spot-on: “Dad tap-tap-tap-tapped across the floor in his bicycle shoes and plugged his heart-rate monitor into his laptop to download his workout.” Bee’s prestigious “grades-erode self-esteem type school” was wonderfully tongue-in-cheek. And the sharp wit aimed at corporate culture also hits its mark.
What I Didn’t Like: Bernadette’s toy chest of anger, envy, childishness, self-absorption, and self-pity were a bit (okay, a lot) too much. I found her over-dramatic, to say the least, and often not as funny as she apparently found herself:
“My intention was never to grow old in this dreary upper-left corner of the Lower Forty-eight. I just wanted to leave L.A. in a snit, lick my considerably wounded ego, and when I determined that everyone felt sufficiently sorry for me, unfurl my cape and swoop in to launch my second act and show those bastards who the true bitch goddess of architecture really is.”
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is not one I will widely recommend, but it is light, quick reading, and Semple does offer some decent humour and satire, so if that’s your pleasure, by all means.
The Book Description: Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.
To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.
My Review: I do not care where this stupid, whining woman went. I want her to stay there and remain anonymous.
Awful. Negative. Condescending to agoraphobics.
It's as noxious as Gone Girl, and cloaked in humor instead of viciousness it still makes me mad. Jonathan Franzen liked it, so did Garth Stein and Kate Atkinson. Note to self: When writers whose work you dislike intensely blurb a book, ignore the hype and avoid it.
The story is told through a series of emails, letters, and other documents. Bernadette initially comes across as just quirky, but deeper issues are soon revealed that challenge the family's overall stability. The "gnats" also prove to be more complex characters than they seem, showing there is always more than one side to any story. The central conflict and its resolution bordered on the preposterous at times, but the light writing style was misleading. Beneath the surface is a novel with surprising emotional impact.
1) Slow drivers - Yes! Just as accurate is excessively nice drivers that hinder traffic flow.
2) Craftsman homes everywhere - Yes, but better now.
3) Microsoft (MS) world domination - See also Google, Apple, and Amazon.
4) Full of "compassionate" people - Yes! Ref 1).
5) Resentment about MS money - NO! MS money is considered local. CA money is the despicable source.
6) "Seattle Freeze" - 50/50 - Yes on dating, No on making friends.
7) Working at the MS office in stocking feet (or socks) - Yes! But true for all high tech companies.
8) Talking about the rain even though it rains all the time - Yes!
I smiled at Bernadette's mockery of other areas too:
"She was a drab type, with a ten-gallon ass, unctuous toward the waiters in some 'see how well I treat the help' show of superiority. (I think it's a midwestern thing.)"
"Those East Coast rich kids are a different breed, on a fast track to nowhere. Your friends in Seattle are downright Canadian in their niceness."
Back to the book itself, the author uses correspondences as the primary vehicle. The novel mostly moves forward and jumps to the past-tense to give background story, including the final 'unveiling' letter completing the plot and giving closure. It was easy to follow.
The main characters are fairly unique. Bernadette/Mom, closed-off yet exuding great intelligence, can't be bothered by the "gnats" of life and is naturally wired to design. My heart goes to Bee, the daughter, who is not only book smart but also logical, loyal to her mom, and fends off comments about her being sick (heart defect at birth). Elgin, the dad, who is a CVP at MS, works endless hours. All three (and others in the book) go through variants of self-discovery, re-connection, forgiveness, and acceptance.
Not the typical page turner where I forget everything the second I finish, this book was worthy of my time.
It is TRUE that Chihuly's are everywhere, and everyone takes pictures of them!
"Hovering over me was the Chihuly chandelier. Chihulys are the pigeons of Seattle. They're everywhere and even if they don't get in your way, you can't help but build up a kind of antipathy toward them"
I want to try this at work, though doubtful it'll be accepted.
"There's a story that during the filming of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola had a sign on his trailer: "Fast, Cheap, Good: Pick Two."
I laughed cuz 'chew and spit' is how I think about some people.
"Yes, I've hauled my sorry ass to a shrink. I went to some guy here, the best in Seattle. It took me about three sessions to fully chew the poor fucker up and spit him out."
Bernadette's anxiety - graphic.
"Even sleeping makes my heart race! I'm lying in bed when the thumping arrives, like a foreign invader. It's a horrible dark mass, like the monolith in 2001, self-organized but completely unknowable, and it enters my body and releases adrenaline. Like a black hole, it sucks in any benign thoughts that might be scrolling across my brain and attaches visceral panic to them.
Bee's thought on religion, upon hearing 'O Holy Night' performed.
"Maybe that's what religion is, hurling yourself off a cliff and trusting that something bigger will take care of you and carry you to the right place."
When it first came out, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? got lots of attention. People raved over it. I resisted. So many books aimed at women are just too sentimental for me and I put this in that bucket. Allow me to take it out. Sentimental is not something I’d call Bernadette, or anyone else in the book. Sure, it’s the story of a family and one whose members are genuinely connected to each other. But it isn’t soppy and the kid, Bee, isn’t an eyesore. I liked her which is really hard to make me do. Bernadette’s past and present are effectively mysterious and the cast of neighbors and hangers on are fabulous. The ending, while not assured, is reassuring and appropriate.
Bee wants to see Antarctica as a graduation present. Because Bernadette cannot face people, she hires a virtual assistant in India to make the arrangements. Below their house, which is really a rundown former school, Audrey Griffin wants to hold a fundraising party for Bee's school. (Her son also attends.) The goal is to attract the best Mercedes parents, like one of the Pearl Jam band members. It doesn't have to be Eddie Vedder.
Audrey is a gnat to Bernadette. She demands Bernadette remove the rambling blackberry bushes from her yard before the party. The fact that it's winter and the hillside will lose its cover to battle erosion do not occur to Audrey. Then again, she's also the kind of parent who wonders what the principal is doing looking in her son's locker. After all, "don't they have locks on them? Isn't that why they're called lockers?"
Bee's dad, Elgin, is up against a tight deadline at work. His new admin assistant, Soo-Lin, is another prep school gnat, um, parent. Soo-Lin is a divorced single mother who attends Victims Against Victimhood meetings. Complications will, of course, ensue as lives become entangled.
It all gets to be too much for Bee's mother. So she disappears two days before Christmas. And Bee decides to find her. That's when the novel hits its true stride and the reader discovers its deep heart.
As the story begins, the satire and snark are delicious. Semple began the novel after moving to the unknown territory known as Seattle, and to someone who has watched the pretentiousness present in some Emerald City residents from the other side of the Cascades since before Microsoft, Starbucks and grunge rock existed, she is spot on.
But like all great novelists who use various forms of humor, Semple knows when to add layers of emotional depth. Bernadette has good reasons to do what she does, and few of the characters turn out to be as cartoonish as they may appear at first. There is a great set piece of sorts when the novel changes tone, a long letter Bernadette writes to a former colleague about her life as a MacArthur grant-winning architect and the birth of Bee. His response to the letter is nearly the same as the one that Semple received as she adapted to a city she now loves, after Bernadette has poured out her heart for pages:
Are you done? You can't honestly believe any of this nonsense. People like you must create. If you don't create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society."
To see what Bernadette does next is not revealed until the end, and there is far too much tell rather than show in the revealing, but it is still a resolution that rings true emotionally and fits these characters just right.
Best of all, Bee is a delightful creation. A brilliant, intrepid daughter could be too twee a character, but Semple keeps Bee from going too far into that territory. Instead, Bee is a fully realized character who just happens to be the youngest of the main ones in this novel. And, just as Semple handles the various voices who relate the narrative, she also allows more than one main character to have her own journey of discovery.
These are characters worth knowing, and their story is one well worth discovering.
I really really really enjoyed this book. I FLEW through the first half... as my bath got cold. Bernadette is a sort of mixed media book, using letters, emails, transcripts, etc. to tell the story. There is a little bit of narration by Bee (daughter) throughout the first 2/3 or so, and then quite a bit more narration in the latter portion. The Desert Girls recently read Wife 22, which was also a mixed-media book, but Bernadette took the concept and, really, showed the world how it should be done.
The book is touted and/or implies that it is a mystery. Bernadette has disappeared and we must discover where she went. This is not a particularly accurate description. Bernadette does disappear, but not until more than halfway through and then... well, you're not really unsure about where she went. You don't know for certain, but you can piece it together pretty well.
Instead, the book is really a wonderfully told story about a rather dysfunctional family (aren't they all), with a mother (Bernadette) who is a genius hermit former architect, the daughter (Bee) who is a brilliant young girl with a medical history and a love of life, and the father (Elgie) who is a workaholic genius microsoft project head who loves his family, if from a distance. Blech, sounds boring the way I just did that. Trust me, it's not.
The characters are quirky, crazy, relatable, totally un-relatable, enraging, off-putting, loving, spiteful, and the complete heart of the story. Semple does not describe her characters in the traditional sense; rather, she provides enough information to give you an outline, and a bevy of personality traits for the reader to fill in the details. The story is less the point, focusing instead on the development of the characters and their character.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Bernadette, and I highly recommend. What made the book not perfect was the ending, which sort of dropped, just a little, in its intrigue. The resolution was just a little less climactic than I would have hoped. But it did not detract from the book as a whole, and it did not leave me feeling frustrated... just a little less than perfectly satisfied.
Highly recommend. (review and others at tometombfidelity.blogspot.com)
Add in the most politically correct school in the universe ("Galer Street School is a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet") and a neighbor intent on feuding and you have the setting for this quirky unpredictable novel.
When Bernadette finds it all too much and suddenly disappears (during a misguided intervention to get her into a mental hospital), daughter Bea takes up the thread to try to discover where her mother has gone-- a feat not achieved by police, FBI, husband and private investigators.
The novel is told through a paper trail of emails, school memos, FBI and police reports, notes from the emergency room (after said neighbor insists Bernadette intentionally ran over her foot) and of course letters and mysterious packages.
I found this book Laugh Out Loud funny and the ending touching. Not great literature, but lots of fun!
The experience was absolutely enhanced by the audiobook reader, Kathleen Wilhoite, whose performance made this seem more like listening to a radio play than to an audiobook. 5 stars and 2 thumbs up for Kathleen Wilhoite! If you're travelling and want an audiobook to make the miles fly by, this one is it.
Maria Semple is very funny. Her novel is often bitingly sarcastic as she skewers the superficiality of elitism. Semple has written for the television series Mad About You and also Ellen…and her ability to write satire is unparalleled. I found myself literally laughing out loud at the situations in which Semple’s characters find themselves. The book pokes fun at the green movement, private school parents (and the administrators of those schools), and corporate America, while delivering a tale about the relationship between mother and daughter.
One of the themes of the novel is identity – specifically Bernadette’s identity of artist which becomes lost amid her role as wife and mother. One character from Bernadette’s past observes:
If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.
That observation is prophetic and it is this idea of being true to oneself which ultimately drives the narrative in this delightful book.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette delivers on many levels: great characters, an original plot, and a witty format. Short listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year, it also demonstrates that smart women’s fiction has found its way into the literary circles.
Readers who are looking for humor, great writing, originality and ultimately characters who touch their hearts, need look no further.
Now the puzzle. Here are the notes I made as I was listening (obviously I jot them down when I get OUT of the pool):
Genre - mystery? psychological character study? family drama? soap opera?
Setting - wonderful if you've been there, but confusing if not familiar with Seattle, and who on earth takes a 15 year old to Antarctica?
Characters - whacko composites? believable? who's the hero? villains? I know that events planner!
Formats - new aged epistolary? does it work? very innovative, not normal diary/letters
story-line - forced? or farced?
So with all those seeming conflicting and negative notes, how on earth could I love this book? The simple answer is that Semple, using an unusual format, tells a rather outlandish but basically believable story from the points of view of several of the wackiest and most loveable and/or detestable characters every to grace the pages of a novel and she makes it all work.
Told in emails, letters, FBI reports, newspaper stories, an emergency room bill, psychiatrist notes, this could have been a mish-mash of nothing. Instead, we are able to see a story unfold from many perspectives as Bernadette Fox - prize-winning architect, mother of Bee, wife of Microsoft gaming wonder Elgin- spins through life in a reality totally out of sync with everyone around her. She's so phobic about everything in the world that she contracts the daily necessities of life to a virtual personal assistant in India. She does not cook, she orders out,(actually she has her personal assistant order out) saving the take out containers for building materials. She battles with her next door neighbor over blackberry vines and PTA duties, enrolls her daughter Bee in an exclusive private school but prefers to remain uninvolved in any parental activities -even removing herself from the school's email list so she doesn't have to be bothered with them. She promises Bee a Christmas trip to Antarctica but leaves the planning up to her virtual assistant, and then begins to back out as her phobias quick into high gear. Then she disappears.
The biggest problem with this book is that the reader cannot stop laughing long enough to read it quickly, but cannot read it quickly enough to be satisfied. Sometimes I had to go back to be sure she really said what I thought she did. Semple takes a disparate batch of glop and weaves it into a tightly bound package of funny but somehow serious thought, that gives us a glimpse of the corporate culture of a city and a citizenry over the top. As you can tell from my notes, it's really hard to describe, but it's way harder to put this down once you start it.
This book grabbed me from the beginning. Bee has a strong voice, and it is through her eyes that I came to see Bernadette, flawed as she is, as a good and caring mother. The richness of the mother-daughter relationship between Bernadette and Bee is reason enough to read this book. But Semple has done more than capture a relationship. She has written a darkly comic book in which Bernadette's exaggerated view of the world was just familiar enough to make me realize some of the absurdities in my own life. The description of the school brunch planned as a recruiting tool for future students was over-the-top, but vaguely reminiscent of similar events that I've been a part of. Microsoft rises from the pages, almost a character in its own right, as Semple pokes fun at its corporate culture. She does the same to Seattle, a place that Bernadette never tires of maligning.
But the reader quickly learns that things aren't always as they seem in this story, especially not Bernadette herself. Semple builds the story, leading us down a well-tended path, and then switches our perspective. This book is a fun read with its share of humor, but it also cautions us not to make assumption because the truth lies much deeper than the surface.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is Bee’s recounting of the events leading up to and after her mother’s mysterious disappearance. If a book can have slapstick comedy, Where’d You Go, Bernadette has it in spades. Rather than try and describe the antics, I suggest you read the book. It is packed with superb ‘gnats’ like neighbor Audrey and Soo-Lin Lee-Segal. It is packed with Bernadette’s long winded but entertaining rambling e-mails (don’t forget, she’s a recluse) and her virtual assistant is something else (literally).
I’ve stated before that I think humor is the hardest literature to write and Maria Semple has done a fine job with it. I highly recommend Where’d You Go, Bernadette for a fast, fun read.
By the way, I think teens would like this book as well. Fun for the whole family.
Bernadette does not even pretend that she wants to be involved. Not only does she not speak to them in the school drop-off zone, she doesn't even notice when she runs over the foot of one mother insisting to speak with her. Something is wrong with this woman; they are sure of it, and they are going to make her pay for it.
Elgie knows that something is going on with Bernadette but his top secret project for Microsoft, and the huge amount of money he brings home for managing it, allow him to ignore the problem - or, at least, postpone dealing with it. Things do seem to be going well enough, after all. Bernadette is managing the home front efficiently (although with help he knows nothing about), and Bee is doing so well in her studies that she has qualified to claim her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica.
Then all hell breaks lose, Bernadette disappears, and, after a while, Bee seems to be the only one still looking for her.
Believe it or not, serious as all of this sounds, Where'd You Go, Bernadette is the funniest novel I have read this year. The book, a satirical look at the whole Microsoft/Seattle lifestyle, is filled with laugh-out-loud moments that will have the reader wondering just who the "crazies" in the story really are. But, although it sometimes borders on slapstick, the novel does offer some touching reminders and insights into the relationship between mothers and daughters. It will be young Bee, after all, who refuses to give up the search for her missing mother - even when others are certain that she is lost forever - and the precocious teen is determined to go to the ends of the earth to find her.
Among the memorable "little moments" in the novel, is the scene in which Bee discovers the wonder of Abbey Road, the 1969 Beatles album that was to be the last the band ever recorded. Bee's shock and embarrassment when her mother sings along with every one of the songs - in perfect sync with the recorded vocals - is a smile-inducing reminder that children find it impossible to believe their parents were ever young enough to be "cool." Even Bee, a girl who considers her mom to be her best friend, cannot quite make that leap.
Adding to the fun, Where'd You Go, Bernadette is very cleverly structured to tell its story largely via a series of email messages, handwritten notes, transcripts of conversations, and the like. This places the reader inside the heads of a variety of characters who reveal more about themselves than they want to reveal - probably even to themselves. This one is hard to put down.
Rated at: 4.5
Where'd You Go Bernadette is hilarious, insightful, almost magical in the way it shifts perspectives and language from character to character, and well plotted--overall every page was an absolute joy to read.
The basic story is told by Bernadette's eighth grade daughter Bee as well as through letters, emails, receipts, articles, police reports, and other original materials. It begins with the disappearance of Bernadette on the eve of a family trip to Antarctica and then goes back to the series of events that lead to it, with articles and letters illuminating still further events in Bernadette's life. The last parts of the book take off from the disappearance.
The novel has a number of laugh-out-loud set pieces, with especially repeated and borderline vicious satires of Seattle, the Microsoft corporate culture (Bernadette's husband works at Microsoft), the private school scene and the art world, to name just a few. At the same time, it shifts perspectives on these events, illuminating them piecemeal, adding to the humor but also bringing more insight into the different characters.
At the same time, it is more successful than most comic novels in depicting growth for some of the characters (although most of them are frozen in their comic archetypes) and discoveries about themselves and each other.
Bernadette is a complete mystery to the other mothers at Galer Street Elementary School that her daughter Bea, a precocious and extremely intelligent child, attends. She doesn't join in with any of the voluntary activities, she doesn't contribute and is never seen out of her car or without her sunglasses. Bernadette doesn't think much of them either, referring to them as 'gnats'. Despire being an award winning architect her house is falling to pieces and she hasn't designed anything for years. She tries to have as little human contact as possible, and has outsourced much of her life to a virtual assistant in Delhi at $0.75 an hour: unfortunately this has involved handing over more and more details of her credit card, bank accounts, and other personal information, as the family plan a trip to Antartica to reward Bea for her perfect grades at school. And when this policy backfires in a fairly spectacular manner Bernadette's strategy is to run away, showing her usual lack of consideration for her fellow human beings, this time in the shape of her husband and daughter. Personally, I think I'd be quite glad to see the back of Bernadette if she was my mother, but Bea and her father embark on a quest to track her down.
In Bernadette, Maria Semple has created one of the most self-centred characters that I've ever come across. In her own mind she is far too interesting, clever and sophisticated to be expected to interact with any of the people she meets outside her own family, an opinion which extends to cover the entire population of Seattle. But Bernadette hasn't actually done anything interesting or clever herself for the last fifteen years, since an architectural project went wrong and she moved to Seattle with her family. And as far as I can see she hasn't done anything that could be counted as kind or considerate or centred on anyone other than herself either.
An example of the 'me, me, me' train of Bernadette's thoughts:
'The only way to get to Antartica is by cruise ship. Even the smallest one has 150 passengers, which translates into me being trapped with 149 other passengers who will uniquely annoy the hell out of me with their rudeness, waste, idiotic questions, incessant yammering, creepy food requests, boring small talk, etc. Or worse, they might turn their curiosity towards me, and expect pleasantry in return.'
So not a great book for me - it's only getting two and a half stars.
I spent much of the time chortling along, and found most of it delightful. For instance, never could I have imagined that Ps and Bs could be so funny.
Every once in a while, there were short periods when I was afraid it was going to get tedious, and then I’d be caught unawares, many times, laughing so hard.
Like most good humor, there is much poignancy too. The tone did change for a while toward the end and I wish it hadn’t. I don’t think it was absolutely necessary, though it did make sense. For me it lowered my rating ½ or a bit more fraction of a star. So, 4 ½ stars, not 5, but I’ll round up because I had so much fun reading it.
There were some real surprises, and I hated to put it down. As the ending approached, I was so eager to find out what had happened/would happen, so I didn’t put it down, even though it meant getting way behind with my end of the month tasks and paperwork that normally take up a great deal of my last weekday of the month.
I might have liked it even better if I lived in Seattle (I have visited frequently and know the city fairly well so maybe not) and/or if I was wealthy, had a house, and/or teens/children in certain types of schools, but I “got it” as I read. And for many years now I’ve yearned to go to Antarctica and so I enjoyed the armchair travel there. I enjoyed the art/artist/genius angle and the MS angle too. The story is a perspicacious and brilliant satire in so many ways.
I loved the unique mix of emails, letters, documents, etc. that helped tell the story. I loved Bee’s voice, Bernadette, and so many of the cast of characters.
Overall, this was a real joy. If I wasn’t about to start another humorous novel by a favorite author of mine, I’m sure I’d be incredibly sad that I’m done. I am feeling a tad mournful anyway, and I envy readers who have this book ahead of them. A mark of a very worthwhile read!