Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

Maria Semple – Where’d You Go, Bernadette [Feature Review]

[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”0316204269″ locale=”us” height=”110″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41HGJKFdW3L._SL110_.jpg” width=”72″]Page 2: Maria Semple – Where’d You Go, Bernadette


Bernadette, the centerpiece of the book, remains something of a mystery to the reader. I myself am still debating on what I think in regards to her character and motivations, and I will leave it up to you to decide ultimately whether she deserves our pity, admiration, or a stern talking-to (or perhaps a mixture of all three). Like her large black sunglasses, Bernadette has long hid herself away from the world, once the pain therein had been confirmed. Whatever her dark secret was, it drew her inward, her oppression hidden from everyone, caving in on herself. The manse, literally crumbling and decaying around the family that inhabits it, becomes something of a metaphor for how we deal with the pain of the world.  Bernadette chooses to slowly wither away, but her vines prove more tenacious than anyone realizes, especially herself.


There are various other religious themes scattered throughout the book. Bee, academically astute and doted on by her parents, finds herself hanging out at a Christian youth group with her best friend on most weekends, where she feels both safe and embarrassed in the presence of the kind and caring couple who lead it. At one pivotal point in the story, just days before Bernadette’s disappearance, Bee finds herself at a Christmas concert with the youth group, watching the nativity scene and listening to a full-scale rendition of O Holy Night. Bee is surprised at the emotion that overwhelms her, the gospel chorus (dressed up as angels) belting it out in the background, the words to the song projected onto a screen up front. She says:

“It was so joyful and unapologetically religious, I realized that these ‘churchy’ people as mom called them, were actually oppressed, and only now could they open up because they were safely among other churchy people. The ladies who looked so nice with their special hairdos and Christmas sweaters, they didn’t care how bad their voices were, they were joining in, too. Some threw their heads back and even closed their eyes. I raised my hands, to see how it felt. I let my head drop back and I closed my eyes.”


When I read that passage, I gasped. How did Bee know what I felt, at every damn worship service I ever went to? Semple was adeptly able to convey what so many of us who have grown up in the church do not know how to articulate: the importance of feeling like you belong, even for a moment, in the grand scheme of things. Beneath the stories of these unabashedly privileged people (Microsoft itself is a theme, as are TEDtalks, prestigious green architecture awards, boarding schools, and vacations to Antarctica), there is the sense of a deeper connection to one of our most basic needs: the longing to known. As Bee says, at the end of the Christmas service: “I felt so alone in the world, and so loved at the same time.”


Where’d You Go, Bernadette, is the rare bird of being an entertaining read while also speaking deeply to the realities of our world. Semple is masterful at bring us along to far-fetched places, immersing us in the silly, insular world of Seattle elites, and then suddenly asking us to see ourselves mirrored in the characters. It is a book about being lost, and the process of being discovered at the same time–and at the core of the novel is a plea for compassion, for humor and empathy to be cultivated amidst the pathos of life. Because no matter how horrible or ridiculous the world gets, there is always beauty to be found, something bigger than you that slaps you in the face and makes you realize how loved you were in the first place.
D. L. Mayfield lives in the exotic Midwest with her husband and daughter. Recently they joined a Christian order among the poor, where they are currently seeking life in the upside kingdom. Mayfield has written for McSweeneys, Geez, the Curator, and Conspire! among others. You can find her on Twitter at @d_l_mayfield or on her blog http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com.


C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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