Travis_J_Smith’s Review #67: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple


I’m not generally one for peer pressure, but the sheer number of reviews and effusive praise for Where’d You Go, Bernadette convinced me that I had to read this book. I did and, as I usually am with books as acclaimed as this, was let down considerably.

Had the story ended with Bernadette’s (initial) disappearance, it would’ve moved at least one notch up to a 3 instead of a 2. But it doesn’t, and Semple’s story starts to unravel. Short of spoiling the ending, I’ll say this: from her disappearance onward, I could suspend my disbelief no longer.

My problems with Where’d You Go, Bernadette, however, started much earlier. Refreshing though it was, the format of the book itself didn’t quite work for me. At times, I bought it completely, whereas in other cases I found reason to question it. In other words, not every snippet of correspondence is created equal.

Some I felt the story could’ve done without. Others weren’t as well-written as the rest. And, in general, it all felt pretty samey. No matter who as talking, and no matter the form his or her correspondence took, the differences were negligible.

Yet, that being said, I also feel almost as if the book could’ve been improved by cutting out Bee’s input. Few will even go so far as to entertain that thought, saying it was essential to the plot, but I never connected to, or particularly liked, Bee.

Plus, a story told entirely through correspondence is much more ambitious and, thus, appeals to me more than the book as is. There would be a far greater chance for failure, but I would’ve been interested to see Semple at least try.

In short, it was a very hot-and-cold book (pun intended) for me. Disappointing, but with enough promise for me to consider giving Semple another shot.


Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

5 thoughts on “Travis_J_Smith’s Review #67: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

  1. “Few will even go so far as to entertain that thought, saying it was essential to the plot, but I never connected to, or particularly liked, Bee.”

    It’s because you’re a dude. The mother/daughter relationship between Bee and Bernadette was one of the best things about it. Without Bee, the book would have been significantly diminished, as it wouldn’t have been about family anymore, just the other stuff.

    • No, it’s because, other than in a few notable instances, their relationship never resonated with me. I was more intrigued by Bernadette slowly losing her mind and the satire. It has nothing to do with my gender; I’m all for stories where the mother/daughter relationship is central. For example, Merida’s relationship with her mother is why I absolutely love Brave. Bee’s relationship with her mother, on the other hand, never worked for me as well as it did for you and seemingly everyone else. Honestly, I’m kind of offended that you distilled it down to being a gender-based matter, as if my being a guy means I can’t appreciate a good story just because it happens to involve certain “girly” things.

      • Sorry, didn’t mean to offend you. You’re certainly free to have your own reaction, but I do believe (my flippant) comment has some merit. You are not a daughter, or a mother. In the same way that I am not a son, or a father (and I do not have brothers). It has always been my experience that I have less connection to father/son stories because I have no firsthand experience with anything that would make the emotions in those stories resonate with me. And because the mother/daughter relationship specifically was my favorite part of this book, I got a little defensive. Carry on.

    • To explain further, I loved the moment where they’re listening to Abbey Road in the car and her mom won’t stop singing along, but felt there weren’t many moments like that where their relationship really hit home for me. Moreover, there just weren’t many moments altogether since “the other stuff,” I felt, dominated the story. It’s not until the shift to Bee’s narration towards the end that we really get a sense of how meaningful a relationship this is to Bee. Sure, her writing the book by itself shows how much she cares but, before that bit at the end, there was very little input of her own. It was mainly just her chronicling all of the correspondence she’d received. I mean, after that bit at the beginning where she explains that this (the book, finding out the answer to the question posed by the title) is her mission, she sort of fades into the background. If the book had been longer and, thus, had more time to delve into the mother/daughter relationship, perhaps it would’ve resonated with me more deeply than it did.

    • Sorry, I got fairly defensive myself. As a guy who doesn’t conform to practically any of the stereotypes associated with my gender, I’m touchy about people lumping me in with all the others or using my gender as an explanation for this or that. So I guess we both raised our hackles a tad, especially me.

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