Book Review: Where’d you go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

My Rating: 4/5

The Blurb: Bernadette Fox is notorious.

To Elgie Branch, a Microsoft wunderkind, she’s his talented, volatile, troubled wife. To fellow mothers at the school gate, she’s a menace. To design experts, she’s a legendary architect. But to 15 year-old Bee, she is quite simply Mum.

Then Bernadette disappears. And Bee’s search for her mother reveals an extraordinary woman trying to find her place in an absurd world.

My Review: I really enjoyed this book. It was witty and heart-warming; centred around three main characters; each with their own quirks and eccentricities. Bernadette – once a revered architect; is now an easily frustrated, deeply depressed and socially anxious individual, prone to manic outbursts. Her husband, Elgie is withdrawn, seemingly oblivious to what is happening in his family; hiding behind his high-powered career at Microsoft. And Bee, their daughter, is intelligent, perceptive and completely devoted to her mother.

The characters are well- developed and presented; the author making good use of the novel’s epistolary style; combining letters, articles, police reports, emails, memos etc. written by a cast of adults; interspersed with Bee’s perspective as she tries to unravel the mystery that is her mother, Bernadette.

Bernadette begins as a prickly character. Living in a city she hates; in a ramshackle former girls school that neither she or her husband have the time or care to fix up; outsourcing everything she can to a ‘virtual’ assistant and refusing to take part in the community at her daughter’s progressive school; she hardly leaves the house. Until her daughter, having received good grades on her report, asks to go on a family vacation to Antarctica, with anxiety inducing ramifications. It is not until the author begins to share Bernadette’s backstory that her vulnerability begins to shine through and her true nature becomes visible.

Likewise, it is not until later in the novel, during a heart to heart conversation with his daughter, that you begin to see the real Elgie; his despair at his disconnection from his family and his willingness to go to the ends of the earth to reconnect with both his wife and daughter.

The supporting characters, Audrey (the Gnat) and Soo-Lin (Elgie’s ‘assistant’ and another parent from Bee’s school) too had interesting roles to play. The competition between the two ‘friends’, their rivalry with Bernadette, the pity they feel towards Bee; elements of which can be found in any school community the world over; brought a smile to my lips. Having been involved in my school community, as both a parent and a staff member for many years, I couldn’t help but see similarities…maybe not to the same extreme but still there they were, producing some LOL moments.

Summary: ‘Where’d you go Bernadette?’ is a fast-paced read with interesting characters and some deeper though-provoking themes such as social isolation and the importance of connection and compassion for mental health and wellbeing; delivered in a genuinely life affirming way. Highly recommend!