Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Me at Radio 2Exciting EmilyBooks news this week… I was asked on to the Radio 2 Arts Show to talk a little about bookshops, browsing and some good summer books. Should you want to share in this thrilling event, you can listen again here until Saturday (I’m about 1hr 30 min in) or  you can download it here for free for a month (when I’m about 50 mins in). (I know I look quite shiny in the photo – I’d just cycled there unusually speedily.)

The interview made me think rather a lot about the idea of a ‘good summer read’. My favourite books to read on holiday are books about going on holiday – so, for instance, Island Summers, which I suggested on the radio, and also any of: The Enchanted April, Illyrian Spring, As I Walked Out one Midsummer Morning and Swimming Home.

The BBC assured me, however, that I needed to suggest a more varied selection. People didn’t want to listen to me talking about three books in which essentially the same thing happened. I could see their point, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how many wonderful reading opportunities the summer provides.

Essentially, the summer gives you more time to read. What you do with this extra time is up to you. You might want to read something long and meaty – like Wolf Hall or, as I suggested on the show, Zweig’s brilliant Beware of Pity.

It is also, I think, the perfect time to re-read – to go back to a treasured book and give some extra time to it, rather than endlessly pressing on with the new. Why do we only read books once, when there is so much to be gained from reading a book again? The book I suggested on the radio was Rebecca – one of the best books to re-read as your alliances really shift between the new Mrs De Winter and Rebecca as you grow older and less naïve!

The other thing that  has since struck me about a summer read is that it is important to feel you can indulge in reading something very easy and very enjoyable. The sort of book where you don’t luxuriate in beautiful language or struggle with intellectual arguments, but whizz through smiling and laughing and, should something interfere – such as a mealtime or a husband – then you long to get back to it as swiftly as possible.

Where'd you go BernadetteI think I’ve found the perfect new book for this: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Begun idly in a lunchbreak, when I picked it up to see what all the fuss was about, this was an inescapable pleasure to read.

Bernadette disappears two days before Christmas. This book is her teenage daughter’s piecing together what happened before her disappearance in an attempt to understand it. So we get a collage of emails, blog posts, notes, interview transcripts and a few explanatory asides. Perhaps it reminded me a little of A Visit from the Goon Squad, mixed with Bridget Jones’s Diary, mixed with a television series. (Incidentally, Maria Semple wrote for Ellen and Arrested Development.)

Bernadette is a strange and brilliant heroine. She is married to a Microsoft whizz and her daughter Bee is incredibly bright, but had a difficult start in life. We soon learn that Bernadette finds it hard to function in social situations and struggles with life in Seattle. She employs a Virtual Assistant to do everything for her – from booking restaurants to employing gardeners – and she despises the other mothers at her daughter’s school. She refers to them, rather wonderfully, as ‘gnats’:

Because they’re annoying, but not so annoying that you actually want to spend valuable energy on them.

The novel covers ground from Seattle to Antarctica, school-gate politics to architecture, Microsoft and mothering. What works so well is the way Semple tackles universal problems – incredibly annoying neighbours, husbands who work too hard, putting one’s life on hold for children – mixed with Seattle specifics. For instance, we get a wealth of funny insight into the world of Microsoft, where the employees are all itching to get a contraband iPhone.

As well as being funny and enjoyable, the book raises all sorts of interesting questions. Madness, for instance. Take the following example of Bernadette’s behaviour towards her next-door ‘gnat’:

From: Bernadette Fox

To: Manjula Kapoor

I need a sign made. 8 feet wide by 5 feet high. Here’s what I want it to read:



Galer Street Gnats

Will Be Arrested

and Hauled Off to Gnat Jail

Make the sign itself the loudest, ugliest red, and the lettering the loudest, ugliest yellow. I’d like it placed on the western edge of my property line, at the bottom of the hill, which will be accessible once we’ve abated the despised blackberries. Make sure the sign is facing toward the neighbor’s yard.

It’s pretty extreme – if very funny – behaviour and, on the face of it, seems quite mad. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that eventually, after a few episodes like this, Bernadette’s husband worries that she is mentally unwell and tries to get her institutionalised.

Unlike Bernadette’s husband, the reader grows to absolutely understand her behaviour. We have seen the run of emails and notes etc that have built up to Bernadette wanting to erect the sign. It is not just because her neighbour has insisted that she dig up all her blackberries using a specific machine at huge expense, but because her neighbour has crawled through the fence into her garden when she thought she was out, has pretended that Bernadette drove over her foot (and has billed her for it) and, moreover, along with the other ‘gnats’, has ‘done everything to provoke me into a fight over the past nine years’. Is it really so surprising that at last Bernadette has cracked?

Moreover, once we discover what’s happened to Bernadette before she moved to Seattle, it begins to make even more sense. She is a highly intelligent and talented architect, who, once her child is born, stops working altogether. It is as though all the talent and energy she used to put into creating has been warped into angry rants about her confining circumstances.

While Bernadette undoubtedly exhibits some eccentric antisocial behaviour, it seems utterly mistaken to try and institutionalise her for it. Added to which, the other characters are hardly straightforwardly normal. Take Bernadette’s husband, who insists on not wearing shoes at work, avoids conversations on the bus with noise-cancelling headphones, and travels with a ‘neti pot – the thing he uses to irrigate his nasal passages’. There is Soo-Lin, his admin, and a gnat. Her emails are full of irritating self-help acronyms, like VAV – Victims Against Victimhood, where they CRUSH any newcomers:

C: Confirm their reality

R: Reveal our own abuse

U: Unite them with VAV

S: Say sayonara to abuse

H: Have a nice life!

Everyone else seems so loopy that Bernadette’s behaviour seems relatively sane. And yet, as the plot thickens, we infer that beneath everyone else’s eccentric behaviour lie rational explanations. Everyone is mad. No one is mad. You could learn exactly this from spending a day in a bookshop.

I thought this a brilliant novel. Funny, unusual, unputdownable. It is a perfect summer read. And yes, I suppose it is about people going away on holiday, but surely, given that the holiday is to Antarctica, rather than somewhere sunny and European, that lets me off the hook.

Maria Semple

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3 Responses to “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”

  1. Mrs Madrigal Says:

    I thought it was a perfect summer read too (shame I wasn’t on holiday!), a great story, biting satire and some warm fuzzies too!

  2. Ben Shiriak Says:

    I enjoy your posts.

    Can you recommend a contemporary British academic novel with realistic dialogue?

    Something a little more with it than Iris Murdoch?


    Ben D. Shiriak

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Ben,

      What do you mean by academic? I love the dialogue in novels by Jane Gardam and Penelope Fitzgerald…


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