Readers’ Advisory 2: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Maria Semple

Quick Facts 

Author: Maria Semple

Published 2010 Little, Brown and Company. $8US, $9CAN

351pp. 9780316333603

Humor, Satire, Women’s Fiction

Available in print, eBook, and audio

Why I Read It

This book has come through my library so many times. The first time, the cover caught my attention. The second time, I read the description, and while I wasn’t immediately hooked, I was intrigued. It kept coming and going for a while, but I didn’t feel the impetus to read it when it was “popular”. When I was finally ready, I discovered a travesty. My library did not own one copy of this book. Having recently been chosen to select for the paperback fiction collection on the collection development team, this would be one of the first books I bought. I promptly became the first person to check it out too.

TLL’s Tag

Bee must find her mother, Bernadette, who has developed an aversion to people so severe that she disappears rather than grant the gift of a lifetime: a trip to Antarctica.

The Rundown

Told in letters and memos, 15-year-old Balakrishna “Bee” Branch pieces together the story of her mother, MacArthur Grant recipient and renowned architect, Bernadette Fox. They live in a run-down manor house that used to be a boarding school for girls. Their neighbors are rude busybodies, who talk about Bernadette every chance they get. Bee’s school is one of the most progressive in the state. Her father is Elgin Branch, who gave the most famous TEDtalk in TED history. Life should be pretty sweet for Bee. It all comes crashing down, though, when Bernadette disappears into thin air, literally, two days before Christmas and a planned family trip to Antarctica.

Bernadette is brilliant, but she has been stifled by Seattle life and her own unhealthy coping mechanisms. After suffering numerous miscarriages, Bernadette gives birth to Bee, who is born with severe medical issues that require multiple surgeries in the first minutes, and next five years, of her life. All this after having her greatest creation, before Bee, Twenty Mile House, destroyed by her vindictive neighbor.

The family does end up on that trip to Antarctica, albeit by circuitous route.

Here’s what I think

This was brilliant. After being interrupted many times, when I finally got a chance to sit and be with this story, I tore through it. There is so much information about who Bernadette is and why she is the way she is, that I can only commend Semple for handling it in such a way that it didn’t seem like too much information. It did not feel as though a word were wasted or extraneous. In fact, I was sad when I got to the end, because I want to know more about Bernadette, Bee, and Elgin. I want to know how Bernadette will react to Soo-Lin’s pregnancy. I love that Bernadette has no filter, so that reveal would be entertaining.

It does take a minute to get into the story. It’s being told by a teenager, so there are some tangents that don’t seem particularly relevant to the story of Bernadette, but are important to the story of Bee. The characters, except maybe Soo-Lin, are all wonderfully done. I so hoped Audrey would die, crushed by her own arrogance, but what actually happens is much better.

I feel as though everything I want to say is just one hundred different ways of saying how much I loved this book. I see why it won the Alex Award and became bestseller. Even now, years later, this story is so good that I want to tell everybody about it.

It is a story about family and parenting and remembering that parents are people too. In fact, sometimes, they are people first.

Final decision

This book got a lot of hype when it first came out, not from marketing but from reviews and word of mouth. The hype is well justified, and we may see it on the big screen soon.

5Q–Hard to imagine it being better written.

5P–Every reader of this genre wanted it yesterday.

Readalikes, courtesy of NoveList Plus


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The Financial Lives of the Poets, Jess Walter

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, C, Alan Bradley

Appeal Factors

Funny, offbeat, epistolary, witty, engaging,

Book talk ideas

Outsourcing your life

Twenty Mile House


Galer Street School

Book discussion questions

1) How did you feel about Elgin Branch at the beginning of the book? Did your feelings change at all?

2) Bernadette calls Audrey and Soo-Lin gnats. Describe the similarities between gnats and these two characters.

3) Which character undergoes the most change?

4) Bernadette has had four visions so far. What do you think her remaining visions will be or include?

5) Antarctica represents different things for each character. Pick one and describe the impact Antarctica has had on his or her life.

Clues to the Future

Seattle, Microsoft, Samantha 2, TED talks, Bernadette Fox, Bee, Balakrishna, agoraphobia, Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Elgin Branch, epistolary novels, satire

Awards and Lists

Alex Awards 2013

New York Times Bestseller

Links to the Author, Interviews, and Reviews

Author site:

Real Simple Q&A:

TED blog Q&A: 

New York Times Review:

NPR Review:


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