Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Tonight after Spanish, I decided not to eat my customary burger, but to get something more healthy. After an hour walking through the brightly lit food desert that is the Bugis+ mall, I admitted defeat, and settled for a bag of crisps and some cookies from Subway. This was not a meal that brought me great cheer.

Like the eponymous Bernadette of Where’d You Go, Bernadette (is anyone else but me exercised by the absent question mark in the title?) I tried to keep my flagging spirits up by cultivating rage at everyone and everything around me, but it was no use; the antiseptic spaces of Singaporean shopping malls make it futile to take umbrage. I should have concentrated on how much I enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette[?].

Where’d You Go revolves around several people who think the world revolves around them. There’s Bernadette Fox, ex-architect, fled to Seattle after a Bad Thing happened in LA, her husband Elgin Branch, who works at Microsoft and is Very Clever, and Audrey Griffin, who is a fellow parent at the granola-school that Bee, Elgin and Bernadette’s daughter attends.

(Bee is herself the kind of intellectually perfect daughter who could become very wearing, given how constantly brilliant she is.)

The first part of the novel is farcical, in just the right ways; Bernadette, Elgin and Bee live in a ridiculous, impractical house and have to interact with their awful, upwardly mobile neighbour, and various ridiculous things happen, some the fault of Bernadette, and some not. Having been in Seattle just a month ago, I felt very familiar with all the landmarks that are mentioned (indeed, I stayed in the same hotel as one of the characters, although I think three floors below and one tower over, and ate at some of the same restaurants – or rather, I got to eat at Wild Ginger while other characters only get takeout from there) and later, when Microsoft and different acronyms start to be mentioned, there was an eerie sense of familiarity with the whole situation.

As the title suggests, Bernadette goes somewhere, and I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil the plot, carefully constructed as it is, with little leitmotifs like sophisticated, upper class things having to be situated next to industrial things that smell of fish. (Was that a non-sequitur?) To begin with, the book is epistolary in form, a series of emails and other documents, tied together by Bee’s commentary on them. One mystery is how she has all these emails – has the prodigy hacked her parents’ computers? and it’s quite satisfying how later on, the accumulation of communications is explained.

At the same time, once Where’d You Go, Bernadette moves away from the epistolary form to a more conventional, first person narrated story, it does lose a little of what made it special. That, or as we learn more about each character and some of them become more real (and so less pleasant to be around) it naturally becomes less fun, like the switch from confectionary to serious food.

Despite most of the characters being people who, when I stopped to think about it, would be hell to be around(or perhaps because of that) I really enjoyed this book. I started reading it around 4pm, and after going for a run on Sunday night I couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it. (I was a bit confused by the length of the book, because there was an extra few chapters from the start of Maria Semple’s other book at the end, as a sample. That meant Where’d You Go, Bernadette finished earlier than I expected, but you can think of that as an extra twist.) I’ve read other reviews that said the book was awful because there were no sympathetic characters – that is a reach, because pretty much everyone has at least some redeeming qualities here. Maybe this reviewers just really hate people who criticize Seattle…

3 thoughts on “Where’d You Go, Bernadette

  1. That was the great part of the book – the redeeming qualities. Made it emotionally satisfying as well as clever.

    The way the narrative turned round was very clever – as you say, raises all these questions in the reader’s mind, and then answers them in a watertight fashion.

    I liked the portrayal of Seatle too, which I didn’t know much about before this – about the characters of people there, as well as the geography.

    1. It’s odd how few literary depictions there are of Seattle. (For TV and film you have Frasier, Singles and Sleepless in Seattle,but that still doesn’t feel like that much.). I was on Bainbridge Island (where Bee and her friend Kennedy couldn’t visit because it was raining too hard) and the only books they had in the (fairly large) bookshop that were set in Seattle were an awful looking piece of sci-fi, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

      There are lots of books about Starbucks, but they’re all business tomes, rather than artistic objects. Maybe every budding author from the Pacific Northwest joins a grunge band instead.

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