I’m going to keep this one short and sweet, mainly because Bernadette is already back at the Sandy Springs Public Library. If you’re in Atlanta and you’re looking for her, that’s the last place I saw her, so you might start there.
Several years ago I was contacted by a PR person for Maria Semple (or for her publisher–I can’t remember) and asked if I’d like to read and review her debut novel, This One Is Mine. I agreed, and I read the book, but I never reviewed it. I didn’t like it. It came across as both glib and implausible, and even if I did laugh out loud a few times while reading it, I spent most of my time rolling my eyes and believing that Semple only managed to get a book deal because she was so well-connected. After all, she wrote for television shows including Mad About You, Saturday Night Live, and Arrested Development. I mean, duh. But I don’t really like to write negative reviews (although I guess I kind of just did), so I never posted a review.
Given my experience with This One Is Mine, I wasn’t exactly one of the first people to line up for a copy of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? when it was released. I wasn’t even one of the first million, most likely. I resisted all the positive reviews, all the 2012 year-end best-of lists, all the recommendations from friends. And then, several weeks ago, I was at a low, low point, and I was casting about for something to read that wasn’t too serious, so I decided on a whim to check out Where’d You Go, Bernadette? from the library.
And I’ll be damned if every positive review, every 2012 year-end best-of list, and every friend wasn’t right: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a highly entertaining and funny book. It isn’t perfect–it drags a bit in spots, and the plot is preposterous—but ultimately everything works. You probably know all this by now, but in case you don’t: Bernadette has gone missing, and her fourteen-year-old daughter Bee has decided to reconstruct events using emails, letters, police reports, etc. to see if she can figure out where her mother went. Because of this, the point of view shifts frequently, from sections narrated by Bee to correspondence between a crazy cast of characters that include a self-righteous neighbor and an administrative assistant at Microsoft to emails between Bernadette and her virtual assistant.
Bernadette is fantastic—she’s neurotic, depressed, terrified, intelligent, hilarious, and generous. She’s completely flawed, wholly unlikeable, and totally loveable, all within the space of a few paragraphs. The parts that tend to drag a bit are the parts where Bernadette is missing and we hear less of her voice…up until the end her husband Elgin feels more like a plot device than a real character, although the exaggerated tales of life at Microsoft (where Elgin is a top executive) lend a bit of their own hilarity. Overall, because Semple has done such a great job with Bernadette, the other characters, although well-drawn and funny in their own ways, pale a bit.
All in all, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is not without its flaws, but it is a quick and fun read, and it made me laugh out loud. Four out of five stars.
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