Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Maria Semple
© 2012

After reading The Round HouseI was in the mood for some fluff reading.


Mmmmm, fluff.

Everyone has a different definition of fluff.  For me, there is acceptable fluff and unacceptable fluff.  Acceptable fluff is fun, not super “thinky,” and easily digestible.  Unacceptable fluff is poorly written, trite, or just plain dumb.

Acceptable fluff includes:

  • Admittedly terrible (yet somehow delightful) YA series like Beautiful Creatures and Pretty Little Liars
  • Ann Packer’s books (I have absolutely no idea why.  I would normally hate stuff like this, but she hooked me with The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, and I’ve read every one of her books since.)

Unacceptable fluff includes:

  • Fifty Shades of Grey (“Sitting beside me, he gently pulls my sweatpants down again. Up and down like whores’ drawers, my subconscious remarks bitterly.”  MAKE IT STOP.)
  • Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert, you make me wonder if I’m a closeted misogynist.  Then I remember that I don’t hate all women; I just hate you.)

Where’d You Go, Bernadette seemed to fit the acceptable-fluff bill.  

If you’re not familiar with Maria Semple, then read this hilarious piece she wrote for The New Yorker a couple years ago.  It’s a short story comprised of emails from a teacher, Emily, to the yuppie/hippy-dippy parents of The Mountain Room.  “Dear Mountain Room Parents” is a great example of Semple’s funny, creative, satirical style.  (Seriously, click on that link and read it. It will take you three minutes to read.  And it’s great.)

12611253Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a unique novel made up of emails, snail-mail letters, FBI documents, PTO letters, invoices, a report card, police reports, psychiatric evaluations, and various other documents.  The documents have been pieced together (with the occasional comment and explanation) by fifteen-year-old Bee, who is trying to unravel the mystery of her mother’s disappearance.

Bee is a little genius and surprisingly normal.  She is the daughter of Elgin Branch (who has “the fourth-most-watched TEDTalk” for his Microsoft project, Samantha 2) and Bernadette Fox (who received a MacArthur “Genius Grant” at thirty-two and was once considered the most promising young architect in the country).  The family lives in a ramshackle house in Seattle (I pictured Grey Gardens while I was reading) that was once a Catholic school and home for wayward girls.  Elgie works ridiculous hours at Microsoft and, when he’s not working, he does Seattle-y things like drinking green juice and biking long distances.  Bernadette is an antisocial hermit with serious anxiety issues, who outsources even mundane tasks to her Indian virtual assistant, Manjula.  She hates Seattle and disdains the other Galer Street mothers, whom she calls “gnats.”

When Bee gets straight S’s (for “surpasses excellence”—“Galer Street is one of those liberal, grades-erode-self-esteem-type schools”) on her final report card, Bernadette and Elgie agree to make good on their promise to give her anything she wants for getting perfect grades all through middle school.  What does Bee want?  A family trip to Antarctica!

They have one month to plan.  And, in that month, all hell breaks loose.  The chaos, confusion, mishaps, misunderstandings, and ridiculousness are all brought to light through Bee’s assortment of compiled documents.

Rating: 4/5  🚢

Before reading the book, I thought that the compilation of random documents would be a little too cutesy for my taste.  I was pleasantly surprised.  Semple does it in a way that is smart and creative.

Like “Dear Mountain Room Parents,” Where’d You Go, Bernadette contains some great moments satirizing over-eager, yuppie, private-school parents.  There is a genius marketing letter from a consultant to the Galer Street Parent Association describing the need to stop thinking like Subaru Parents and start appealing more to Mercedes Parents (“Our objective is to move the needle on Galer Street and kick it up into the First-Choice Cluster (FCC) for Seattle’s elite.”).

The book is clever, fast-paced, and funny.  It is excellent fluff.  

Who should read it:  Danielle (i.e., people who can appreciate a satirical look at both hilariously go-getter moms and the ridiculousness of the Pacific NW); Kara (i.e., people who are looking for a fun, smart, quick read for a short trip); CSOB (i.e., people who like Arrested Development–Semple was a writer); my mom (i.e., people who like precocious kids, weird adults, and fluff).

20 thoughts on “Where’d You Go, Bernadette

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  2. I literally laughed out loud at “Dear Mountain Room Parents” (and I’m reading in a public place!). Can’t wait to read this-thanks for the tip!!

    • I laughed out loud when I read it, too. Maria Semple is a funny lady. You will LOVE Bernadette. It’s hilarious and creative. And it takes no time at all to read. I look forward to hearing your assessment of it.

  3. This is an especially great book for those who live in Seattle or who have ever lived there. She’s right on in much of her humorous commentary about the place. For example, one section about Craftsman houses cracked me up. Jeff’s waiting for the movie.

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