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Recently, I finished up Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. Overall, I enjoyed it but didn’t think it was much above average.
The cover is bright and cheery, but I’m not sure how it relates to the book. I think it gives the wrong impression of what you would expect from the novel, which is a contemporary epistolary novel. It’s in the form of various emails, notes, transcripts, and more with regular narration in different viewpoints (but mostly from Bee’s perspective) laced throughout. Although there is a lightheartedness to the tone of the book and it’s easy to get through, it doesn’t quite scream BEACH READ like the cover is trying to make you believe.
I’m going to get right into the review after briefly explaining what the novel is about. The novel focuses on the top 1% of Seattle (which is why the first half kept making me think of American Housewife; it pokes fun at the privileged women a lot). The spotlight is mainly on mother Bernadette, who is quirky if not bizarre, and her daughter, Bee, who is a bright teenager. The father of this family is Elgin (I just want to call him the anagram Nigel), a genius employee of Microsoft. Bernadette, as the title may suggest, disappears and Bee goes on a mission to find her–but this doesn’t happen until much later in the book. The title, like the book cover, is a bit misleading, but technically works because Bernadette pretty much isolates herself from society throughout.
Overall, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? was fine. That’s really the highest compliment I can give it. It was slow in the beginning, then I blew through the rest out of curiosity, but no reveal or explanation was particularly satisfying. Everything leading up to the next event was predictable. The end was especially disappointing because it lacks closure (in a more lazy, don’t-want-to-wrap-this-up way rather than a pointed, purposeful way).
I read some of the reviews in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, and according to Janet Maslin of New York Times, Semple is “someone who can practice ventriloquism in many voices, skip over the mundane, and utterly refute the notion that mixed-media fiction is bloggy, slack, or lazy…” Here I disagreed with her. The mixed-media served no real purpose to the story. The style of the writing seemed experimental and entertaining like the writer was having fun trying different things out more than anything else.
There was a ton of mundane, unnecessary details that were difficult to read. I could have done without the exchanges between a client and her blackberry farmer. I could have done without the hard-to-read transcript from a cruise ship that I skipped over without missing anything. I could have done without a lot of it. This isn’t to say I don’t like epistolary novels. I generally like them a lot, and one of my favorite reads is The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty. That one, in my opinion, had a lot more quirk, laugh-out-loud humor, character, and heart. Moving on!
The characters all had flat, one-dimensional voices that blended into one another without standing apart on their own. There was no character I related to (many I outright disliked which I guess is the point), a lot of their motives and intentions were odd, and the story was quirky in a fun way but also hard to believe. There are some character developments that make sense and others that get me scratching my head. There were also many contrived, unrealistic situations, as well as things just conveniently working out for the plot (For example, this is a minor spoiler but it’s hard for me to believe that a frequently drugged up teen can easily hack into a computer at Microsoft).
I blew through Where’d You Go, Bernadette? in just a few days because it was an enjoyable, light read, but it wasn’t anything special to me. That’s all. Not bad, not great. Points should be given for my actually finishing the book, though, as I’m the type that will just stop reading if I can’t get into the story (like Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, another epistolary-and-narrative novel that was taking me forever so I eventually just stopped).
Additionally, a movie version of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is, of course, being planned right now. It’s going to be released in 2019, which I am already pretty unexcited for. The novel is in mostly epistolary form, which I feel won’t translate well to the big-screen. More importantly, while the book was overall an entertaining, light read, it lacks the punch or impact desired in a cinematic experience. It doesn’t have heart, action, meaning, or even much humor (it’s not as funny as the reviews rave on the book cover). What was I supposed to get out of reading this book? I honestly don’t know. I came out of the experience pretty much the same person going in. To give the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the movie will fully bring to life the quirk that sort of simmered on the surface of this book but failed to go into boil mode.
Once more, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? was entertaining and lighthearted, but it was pretty much an average, forgettable read for me. If you want to give it a go, purchase here (but I’d just borrow it from a friend or the library).