Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

I have finally got round to reading ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ by Maria Semple which was the only book shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction that I didn’t manage to read before the winner was announced in June.  It tells the story of Bernadette Fox, an award-winning architect who lives in Seattle with her husband, Elgie, who works for Microsoft and their teenage daughter, Bee. For various reasons, Bernadette loathes Seattle and one day, she simply disappears, leaving Bee to compile a series of emails, letters, police reports and other correspondence in order to find her mother.

I can see how the structure of epistolary novels is appealing to authors who want to cover the viewpoints of several characters in different styles.  For the most part, Semple handles the structure of the format very well and uses it inventively.  However, as with many epistolary novels, I don’t think it is very realistic to include long passages of dialogue in letters and diary entries.  I also hadn’t expected Semple to abandon the format completely for the last sixty pages or so and return to a more conventional form of writing but I suppose it is better to do that than to continue using it when it isn’t necessary.

Unlike some books which are advertised as being “humorous”, ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ really is very funny in a blackly comic way.  The satire is sharp, particularly on Seattle and the helicopter parents of privately educated children.  The characters are crazy and dysfunctional but not in a farcical or unlikeable way as I found with ‘May We Be Forgiven’ by A. M. Homes who coincidentally won this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.  Instead, I thought they were all quite endearing in their own way.

I am not too surprised that ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ didn’t win the Women’s Prize for Fiction but I did enjoy its quirkiness and it was nice to see a more light-hearted book make it on to a shortlist for a major book award among the more self-consciously literary novels.  Overall, it’s a very good read.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

  1. I loved this book. Like you, I was surprised by the format change in the last part of the novel but I loved the humour of the whole thing. I grew very attached to Bernadette by the end of it!

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  2. I like the sound of this. I admire it when people go for a lighter, more humorous approach, as I think it is difficult to do this well.

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  3. After reading your review, I think I will check out this book. sounds like a great read. I like it when the writing/writer’s aren’t taking themselves too seriously.

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  4. At the moment this book is my favorite “funny”. I enjoyed the way the book was put together and the contrasts the various sources provided.

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  5. jaz

    Great review! This is one of those titles that I want to read, but I have not gotten yet. Hopefully I will read it soon.

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  6. Same as you, I wasn’t surprised it didn’t win, but I had such a lovely time reading it! Although I must admit that the first half is way better than the second one.

    Also, don’t you love the cover?

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  7. Great review – would you recommend it? I borrowed it from a friend and it’s in my very long TBR pile. Not sure whether to push it up or not?

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  8. I also really enjoyed this book and it is one of my favorites of the year, maybe because I tend to read heavier material…this was an intelligent and light read all at once.

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  9. I have yet to be convinced to read this one yet but the cover is fabulous. Great and honest review 🙂

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  10. Agree completely with Literary Relish’s comment. If someone gifts me with a copy, will read. Otherwise: not.

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  11. very nice concise review.. enjoyed

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  12. I liked the dark humor of Where’d You Go, Bernadette a lot, too. I listened to the audio version, which I recommend to anyone who likes audiobooks! It was great that that way.

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  13. I liked this book too …..but agree with your observations. The storyline really stretched credibility towards the end …..but some very astute observations on middle class life

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  14. Pingback: The 2013 End of Year Book Survey | A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff

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