Jessica's Reviews > Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
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Jan 17, 2015

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction, favorites
Read from August 29, 2012 to September 08, 2014 , read count: 2

Read this for a second time for a new book club, and I loved it just as much as I did the first time.

A douche canoe that I (probably shouldn't have) dated for a couple months a few years ago once told me that I didn't like Glee because I didn't understand satire. I'd like to hand him this book and say, "Suck on it, asshat. This is satire."

I suppose that's an entirely different story. The point is, I loved this book. It's sharp, witty, heartwarming, and entirely entertaining. Of course, it came from someone involved with Arrested Development -- should I expect any less?

The first three-fourths of this book are told in the form of email correspondence, magazine articles, even doctors' bills purportedly strung together by fifteen-year-old Bee in an attempt to tell her mother Bernadette's story. Bernadette is the quintessential misunderstood genius. In her thirties, she became one of the few female architects to stand out from the crowd and was eventually awarded a MacArthur genius grant. It's when a project particularly near-and-dear to her heart was destroyed that Bernadette's psyche began to fray. She and her husband, Elgie, moved to Seattle when he took a job at Microsoft. Now, they live in an abandoned home for girls and their daughter has overcome a congenital heart condition to succeed brilliantly at a charter school, whose wannabe-upper-crust parental committee resents Bernadette's refusal to take part in the community. Bernadette, for her part, is still struggling to get over the heartbreak of her previous life and has developed an agoraphobia so severe that she has hired a virtual personal assistant to take care of her daily errands from India.

As the book begins, Bee is cashing in on the promise her parents made that, if she achieves straight A's, she can have any gift she likes. Her request is for a family trip to Antarctica, a request that sends Bernadette's anxiety skyrocketing. Meanwhile, Bernadette's catty neighbor Audrey is declaring war on Bernadette and her blackberry bushes. Picture the biggest busybody from a Desperate Housewives-type setting, if you can. I don't know specific characters to compare to, but that's what Audrey is: a busybody who erroneously believes that her obnoxious behavior is beneficial to and appreciated by everyone else. She wants to host a bruncheon (I don't know if that's a word, but I'm coining it now) to woo legitimately upper-crust parents to the charter school and Bernadette's blackberry bushes are interfering. To say that Audrey has it out for Bernadette is an understatement, but when the bruncheon ends in catastrophe things begin to spiral out of control for Bernadette. Elgie, concerned that his wife's anxiety and paranoia have become larger than life, attempts to stage an intervention for Bernadette. Unfortunately, Bernadette disappears instead and it's up to Bee to find her.

This book pokes fun at the culture of Microsoft and at people who desperately want to be in the next highest social strata without becoming too mean, but where Semple really excels is in her unfolding of Bernadette. There are certainly aspects of the plot that require some suspension of disbelief, but Bernadette is such a great character. She tried keeping it together but at some point, she snapped and has completely folded into herself in anxiety and desperation. She hates Seattle, the parents at Bee's school, her husband's company, everything around her...except Bee. She loves Bee desperately and wants to do anything she can for her daughter. At the same time, she's an artist whose stunted mental health has fried her ability and opportunity to create, which has only made her more anxious and more depressed.

What else can I say? This book isn't high-minded literature, but it's not really trying to be. It's a send-up of a wacky, soapish storyline that manages to stay completely engrossing -- I couldn't put it down.

And it's touching! It's ultimately about self-acceptance -- finding what makes you happy and learning how to balance that with the expectations of others that you can't shake off. And there's this quote, which I loved: "This is why you must love life: one day you're offering up your social security number to the Russian Mafia; two weeks later you're using the word calve as a verb."

I dare say that if you can't appreciate it, then maybe you just don't get satire ;)

(I kid, I kid.)
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08/30/2012 page 101
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 79) (79 new)

Jason McKinney This might be the best opening for a book review I've ever read...

message 2: by Jessica (last edited Dec 04, 2012 02:30PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jessica Thank you Jason. Whether you're referring to my disdain for Glee or the lingering anger at the fellow, I'm glad you found it funny. Satire is hard to pull off, because so many get the tone wrong. If it's too campy or too vicious, I don't like it. Semple strikes the right balance here, I think.

Stephanie I am just glad to see that other people use the term "asshat". It's my favorite go to word!

Julie To which age group would you recommend this book? It seems really great.

Jessica I'd say a mature 13- or 14-year-old could handle it. There isn't really any material that would be inappropriate, but a lot of the satire and the reasons for the action might fly over their heads.

Julie Thanks Jessica!

Annabel Smith 'douche-canoe' + 'asshat' OMG, i hope that poor guy isn't on Goodreads. Smackdown!

Katie You had me at "douche canoe" Thanks for the entertaining review!

message 9: by Jessica (last edited Nov 30, 2012 04:18PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jessica Ha, I'm glad so many people found this so entertaining. It's not like I'm a bitter, scorned woman or anything. I will just occasionally bring up the time he made the comment and the response is always, "Why did you date him?" I never have a good answer except, "Well, I probably shouldn't" but now I think of it whenever the topic of good satire comes up (which is, oddly, frequently).

message 10: by Laura (new) - added it

Laura Haha! Hilarious. I just read your review and then read it aloud to my husband. Simply the best introduction to a review ever. Well done. Based on that paragraph alone, what other books do you like?

message 11: by Jessica (last edited Dec 11, 2012 05:56PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jessica For a book that's funny in a good-natured, not necessarily vulgar, way check out Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman. One of my favorites from last year.

Shoshana haha! i liked glee until they started singing. i can't deal with that awful, overly-earnest, Disney-style singing.

Carly Svamvour A Douche Canoe! Ha ha ha!

message 14: by Toni (new) - rated it 5 stars

Toni Great review. I am currently reading the book and I love it. I live in Seattle and I am laughing out loud at the references to driving, 5 way intersections, and one way streets. It's a hoot.

Jessica Man, if I'd known that all I needed to do to get nearly 100 likes on a review was use the word "douchecanoe," I'd have put it in all my reviews.

message 16: by Sondra (new)

Sondra O'steen Nice word usage. I can see you've read the Lux novels.

Jessica Yikes, I actually don't have a clue what the Lux novels are. "Douche canoe" is just something my friend and I say to each other to refer to men who have been less than nice.

message 18: by Sondra (new)

Sondra O'steen Oh, my mistake! The main female character always said douche canoe, asshat and a few other colorful words. I figured that's where you got it from.

Jessica Ha, no worries. I have a tendency to throw out colorful words and phrases - so much so that I was once gifted a book called "Creative Cursing." :)

Jessica Not sure how I feel about this:

Jennifer Lane Excellent review, Jessica. I also loved Domestic Violets. Great quote from Bernadette's letter at the end of the book.

Jessica Thanks, Jennifer! I think it's a shame that Domestic Violets isn't more well-known.

Laura Ellison Great review. I can see them making it into a movie but I'm not sure I want the people who wrote 500 Days of Summer to be doing it. That was depressing and you're correct in that satire can be a difficult thing to get just right.

Debra L. I love this review.

Jessica Thanks, Debra and Laura!

Ingrid Dayton Douche canoe! Cool. My new favorite insult.

Whitney I literally laughed out loud reading this review.

message 28: by Dode (new) - added it

Dode how can i read i am knew

Monica Sack I always get about 100 pages into a book and then read reviews of it, which is when I ran across this. After learning that you are not a Glee fan and you use the word asshat, I have a feeling I will surely enjoy the rest of this book. Thank you!

Jessica I hope you like it, Monica. I never could believe that the guy though 1) I didn't get satire and 2) that Glee was an example of successful satire. I thought this was such a fun book.

message 31: by Kate (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kate Hearn Adding asshat to my vocabulary...and I'm not a fan of glee either, so just the opening of your review made me need to read this book!

Kimberly i like this jst because you used Douche canoe.. haven't heard that one in a while. ;-)

Jason Beem I am going to try and incorporate the term "douche canoe" into my life in some capacity on a daily basis.

Jessica I find it really is the best term for expressing displeasure with another human being.

Lillian Love your smart review...made me smile. I am reading it now. I so Identify with Bernadette. I stuff my dirty dishes are in the oven til there is no more room.

Julie Montgomery I would hire you to blog for me.

Jessica Aww, thank you Julie! That's quite a compliment!

Kristin I'm going to start using "douche canoe".

Cutler Great review! You might want to add in a spoiler tag though, as you reveal some important characterization not learned until far in the book. Regardless, I loved this book too!

Aishie Douche canoe, has been appropriated, and will be used henceforth

Michael Martin Great review.

Jessica Thank you, everyone. Though Jon Stewart referring to the GOP as Orwellian zebra queefs makes me think I need to work a little harder.

message 43: by Trisha (new) - added it

Trisha I haven't read this book, but I'm glad to meet someone else who hasn't been suckered in by Glee. :P

Kirsten You're right on with this statement: "It's ultimately about self-acceptance--finding what makes you happy and learning how to balance that with the expectations of others that you can't shake off."

Natlukens Glee sucks.

Nikki "The Crazie Betty" V. I think it quite funny that he thought Glee was a good example of satire. I would think, based on his comment, that he doesn't understand satire.

Jessica I know, right? I do think that the first half-season was cute enough, but I very quickly told him that Glee doesn't successfully satirize anything. I still tell people about this - what, four years later? - and their response is always the same: no, it's not good satire and why did you date him?

message 48: by Jo (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jo Verity What's a 'douche canoe'? Sounds fascinating but a little unsavoury.

Jessica Jo - It's just a variation of using douche as an insult, someone whose level of douchiness goes above and beyond normal limits.

message 50: by Jo (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jo Verity Gotcha!

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