Van has finished reading…Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

9 Dec

It’s nearly Christmas, which means the weekday market where I work becomes a Christmas market (same tat but with tinsel and Santa hats). I only needed to get a few things but there were the crowds of people all gawping and dawdling and stopping unexpectedly, the stench of the poor beleaguered donkey with the guy dressed as Joseph and holding a swaddled dolly and for the life of me I couldn’t remember a single thing I needed to do, only for the love of Mike, get me out of here! Yes, Bernadette, I’m with you there.
Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette is something of a deceptive read, and in the best possible way. Bee, Bernadette’s daughter is our guide, the only voice that speaks to us directly, and the compiler of the story. She sets the scene for us and where necessary links the various correspondence that otherwise unfold the action. There are emails, letters, notes, faxes, FBI files (really!), transcripts. The material is superbly handled, revealing Bernadette both at her strongest and her weakest; revealing her as she sees herself and also as viewed by others; revealing too how broad the road can be that leads a person to who they become. Make no mistake, it is a wickedly funny book, underlined with a truly heavy sadness.
The characters are a real triumph. In almost every case what you think of each one when you first meet them is unlikely to be what you think of them at the end, yet the honesty with which they conduct themselves (as characters, I mean, not that they’re particularly honest people) is perfect. I guarantee you’ve met someone like Audrey. You might even be someone like Audrey!
But let’s talk about Bernadette. She’s such a beacon of a character I’m surprised no-one’s made the film yet. Stylish, quirky, a genius: what more could you want in a female lead? But isn’t that half the trouble. Take those traits and make your lead male and you have a very different trajectory. Off the top of my head, I think the only main character who is male is husband, Elgin – his own kind of genius who is, natch, running a major project at Microsoft. These would be things to be lauded all together but for a woman there’s that single additional ingredient that makes her unapproachable: distant. She can’t conform to the type, can’t involve herself in school life or neighbourhood life or any other kind of life society presents her with as a woman. She can’t conform so she escapes. What she doesn’t realise is that the women around her are escaping their own particular bettes noirs, sometimes by conforming.
There’s a line right at the start of the book that sums the whole thing up: ‘…just because you think you can’t know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.’
How many times in our own lives have we felt slighted for want of a little understanding, a little effort on someone else’s part? ‘Just because it’s complicated,’ Bee says, ‘It doesn’t mean I can’t try.’
Now there’s good advice.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette was published in 2012 by Phoenix ISBN:9781780221243
You can find Maria on her website


One Response to “Van has finished reading…Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple”


  1. Van’s top five reads in 2015 | vanisreading - 07/01/2016

    […] When I’m ruling out Life After Life, The Girl In The Red Coat, Galina Petrovna, The Good Son and Where’d You Go, Bernadette you’ll know how hard it was to come to a final […]

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