Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

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Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A funny and satirical epistolary style book about the life of an mother coping, or not, with modern life. Bernadette, a talented architect, has gone missing long before she goes missing, as her 15 year old daughter will discover. An enjoyable, light read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 330 Date: April 2013
Publisher: Phoenix
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0316204262

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Winner: Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Fiction 2013

Much like the missing question mark in the title it would seem, Bernadette has disappeared. Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette works as both a physical and emotional question. Bernadette Fox is the wife of Elgie Branch, a star at Microsoft in Seattle, and mother of 15 year old, Bee. The narrative begins with Bee wondering where her mother had gone, but then quickly moves to an epistolary format told in e-mails, notes and messages between the major players, including some rather obnoxious mothers at Bee's school, one of whom also works at Microsoft with Elgie. We are taken back a few weeks to when Bernadette was around and a seemingly somewhat angry mother prior to her mysterious disappearance. One of the delights about the book, which along with being very funny on issues like helicopter parenting, corporate life and, er, Canadians, is that it emerges that Bernadette is more than a wife and mother but has a past career of her own as a talented architect which she has sacrificed for one reason or another. Thus, in many ways she disappeared long before her physical disappearance.

Semple is a former writer for television shows and this probably partly explains her expertise at developing distinctive voices for each of her characters. Technology both advances the concept of the epistolary style by allowing a faster pace, but also gets in the way in that modern communication is much briefer than the old letter writing style. Semple seems aware of this though and makes one of Elgie's characteristics that he is given to over explaining things. It's a neat way around the problem and one of the joys of this fast paced novel is that it is a relatively light read and the device seems to seamlessly serve the story rather than getting in the way or seeming too tricksy.

Most of all it's a very enjoyable read and the satirical look at modern life, where Bernadette uses an Internet based service to arrange everything from dentist appointments to holidays to the Antarctic to avoid having to encounter the miseries of a corporate city and the hypocritical mothers at the trendy school her daughter attends. But there is also a deeper poignancy at work here of the woman who has sacrificed her ambitions for the good of her family. Telling the story through e-mail exchanges and notes may annoy some, but it works surprisingly well and ensures that the story races along on it's slightly unlikely progress throughout.

Yet, while I loved it and devoured it at a rapid pace, I cannot help but wonder about the book's place on the Women's Prize For Fiction long list. It isn't, for me, one of the 20 most remarkable works by female writers in the last year, even forgiving the grammatically questionable title. It's enjoyable, funny, light and highly entertaining, but is a somewhat surprising addition to the list and perhaps raises expectations a little too highly. That slight reservation aside though, it's book that I'd certainly recommend. It's well plotted and the structure of the book is nicely explained towards the end when Bee takes over the narrative in a more conventional way. Bee's discovery of who her mother really is is touching.

Our grateful thanks to the kind people at Phoenix for sending us this book.

Several people have likened the style to that of A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, although I found Bernadette funnier but perhaps less innovative. Also on the 2013 Women's Prize For Fiction long list in a similarly light, entertaining style are A Trick I Learned from Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge and May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes.

Buy Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple at Amazon.com.


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