Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple: Antarctica, Agoraphobia and Loveable Quirkiness

Where'd You Go Bernadette doll
If you read Where’d You Go, Bernadette, you’ll enjoy this photo from the author’s website! Image source.

I can feel the irrationality and anxiety draining my store of energy like a battery-operated racecar grinding away in the corner. This is energy I will need to get through the next day. But I just lie in bed and watch it burn, and with it any hope for a productive tomorrow.

This is very uncharacteristic of me to say, but Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a real gem of a novel. I’ll probably edit that out later, but there, I’ve said it. After living in Spain, Los Angeles and Colorado as a child, Maria Semple received a BA in English from Barnard College in 1986 before screenwriting for Beverly Hills, 90210 and writing her first novel, This One is Mine, in 2008.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette, published in 2012, is a marvellous, intelligent second novel. Semple tells of Bernadette Fox – up-and-coming architect turned reclusive, fishing-vest-wearing trouble-maker – and her disappearance before the family’s scheduled trip to Antarctica
The novel is pieced together by Bernadette’s daughter, Bee (full name, Balakrishna), as she sets herself the task of unravelling the mystery behind her mother’s disappearance. Bee’s intelligence is off the scale, she helps out at homework club, and to top it off, she was born with a heart defect but remains averse to sympathy or pity.

You can tell that mothers on the Galer Street playground would be uttering, “Why can’t you be more like Bee Branch?” when their kids are setting up drug cartels rather than playing shakuhachis (Japanese flutes) like Bernadette Fox’s wonderful daughter. 

A playground, it must be said, that Bernadette Fox does not set foot on, particularly after she takes to employing a personal virtual assistant from India to fuel her existing agoraphobic tendencies
Where'd You Go Bernadette doll
Lovely cover, no? Image source.
An aspect I particularly enjoyed about the novel is how Bernadette’s husband, Elgie Branch, works for Microsoft. Elgie is worshipped by society for his contributions to technology, and he’s known as “the man with the fourth-most-watched TED talk of all time”. The following quote, by a certain Audrey Griffin, probably made me laugh more than any other moment in the novel:

I don’t give a fig about Ted. I don’t know who he is and I don’t care what he says during this talk you refuse to shut up about.

It’s a superb novel of escaping life, heading into the unknown and facing anxiety head-on. Maria Semple writes in such a quirky, loveable way, and I’m so keen to read her first novel, This One is Mine, over my Christmas break.

My Mum is an architect and has been facing a rough patch lately, so I’m certainly going to buy her this novel for Christmas! Even as a non-reader (awful, I know), I’m sure she’ll love it once she gets into it.

On a side note, I now really, really want to go to Antarctica. 

I’d recommend Where’d You Go, Bernadette for: being stuck in a rut, anxiety, low mood, agoraphobia, anyone in need of something fun and original!

It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.

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