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Review: Where’d you go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I’m back!

Today was the day – the appointment with the photographer to take pics of my house.  The last week has been one of cleaning, tidying, weeding, throwing out, culminating over the weekend in… an ill-timed supported assessment for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition section.

To become an expedition assessor, you go on the training course to do this, after which an already qualified assessor watches you going out with a group of young people over their two day expedition.

So on Saturday morning, off I went to meet the groups.  We started off spending the first hour sheltering in the mini bus from the thunder and lightning.  After this, the sky cleared up to reveal a beautiful day on the South Downs, which included for us a spell  near Alfriston.  Alfriston is a village off the A27 with tea shops, pubs and little indepedent shops


and I used to walk over here with my husband for tea on Sundays, or for lunch at the pub.

This tea shop, Badgers, always has beautiful window displays:


Venues have come and gone over the years, but the George, where my husband and I always had ham, egg and chips, is still there:

The George

Despite being on the main thoroughfare between the A27 and Seaford, it has its own little village square.  It can get very congested here:

The Square

I thought the young people had chosen a lovely route, with Day 1 inland being all about lush greenery, rivers and woods:








(These lucky people were going to a wedding – what a place to get married!)

While on Day 2 they went down to the cliffs:


The young people themselves were even more interesting than usual because they all come from abroad having won scholarships to be educated here.  They were so well informed about both their own and our cultures.  It was quite something to hear a Tibetan talk about the invasion of his country by the Chinese in such level headed terms – his opinion being that the country was better off economically with China, but that the people just wanted their religious freedom.  And that even though the Chinese had killed a million Tibetans, there was no point in being bitter, everyone had to move on.

I got a strong sense of the Buddhist identity in having shaped this young man’s opinions.  It’s a religion that makes Tibet so peace loving and it’s very sad that the Chinese authorities can’t accept it.

While I was waiting for the group to arrive at various meeting points, I managed to finish Where’d you go Bernadette? by Maria Semple.  Bernadette had been recommended to me by several sources and I hadn’t got round to reading.

It’s the story of Seattle teenager Bee, her Microsoft-employed-worshipped-as-a-technical-guru dad, Elgin, and her troubled creative genius of a mother, Bernadette.

Part of it is written from the point of view of Bee, and there are some excerpts of emails between other characters, such as mothers at school and Elgin’s PA, Soo-Lin.  This set up is a bit bemusing, both in terms of its own structure and also because the email dialogue, as befitting real email dialogue, is opinionated and lacks explication – I hadn’t had such an ADHD experience since watching The Lego Movie.

The resigned, knowing voice of Bee against the antics of the other, supposedly adult, characters is very funny.  However, the action at the beginning, consisting of family and neighbourly disputes, seems rather trivial for a book described by The Times as “heart-warming, life-affirming novel of the year.”  It was only sheer faith in the good taste of others here that kept me reading on with high hopes.

In the second half, the reason for the chopped up viewpoints are explained, and the book turns into a mystery, with characters’ motives obscured and changing all the time.  I started to feel much more impressed.  From a fairly provincial setting, the author made some serious statements about the workings of the tech and architectural industries.  Also, as the action settled down and became less farcical, we saw more of the characters’ motivations and desires.  I found the most impressive thing was the way I was always kept guessing as to what would happen next.  When the twists came, they arose from either character development or from misconceptions being righted.

The end felt like a proper wrapped up end, something that the book had been driving towards, both in terms of message and in action.  Which sounds quite basic, but the number of times I have thought “this author never had any idea what they were going to do to tie this all together at the end…”

Also at the end, I was amused to see Seattle’s geography being alluded to.  Having read in quick succession this and The Other, both set in Seattle, I was moved to investigate and found a landscape of rain, grey, and hemmed in by mountains, leading to never ending traffic congestion.  But also the city of liberals that was the only thing I was familiar with, from my Frasier-watching days.  So now I am slightly more informed about other cultures and their influences, and appreciate anew the effects that surroundings have upon the development of your personality.

At the end of Day 2, we ended up in the same car park we had started from.  Some of the young people didn’t recognise it as the same place because it looked so different.  They all passed their assessment with flying colours, and I am now a qualified assessor!






  1. It was such a good book. A little different from what I am used to… but then that is Bernadette all over!

  2. Thanks for taking us on a tour of Alfriston! It makes me miss Brighton (although of course it’s very different!). And I have to finally read Bernadette. It seems like everyone enjoys it!

    • Did you ever manage to get out to Alfriston and the surrounding villages? They have such a different feel from the coast.

  3. Firstly congratulations on now being an officially qualified ambassador, and gaining another string to your bow. The weekend sounded fab. How lovely that the pub is still there 🙂

    Hope all the house stuff goes smoothly and we are reading about you packing up real soon. So exciting.

    Love the sound of this book. You write such great reviews without ever giving too much away – you ought to be making some £££ with this skill Denise!

    • Aww thanks! I would love to be a writer rather than a computer operator, but it’s difficult to find the time :-/

  4. Hope all is going well with the buying/selling etc. etc.! Congrats on becoming a qualified assessor, sounds like you had a very enlightening and enjoyable time. I love spending time with young people, especially those from different cultures. I find it fascinating learning about their background and your conversations sounded so interesting.
    Hope you saw the pic of us on my Friday post … 🙂

    • I am just catching up now, it’s really been manic this last week or so.

      Do you know, I read your blog post on my phone and for some reason the picture of us went off the side of the screen so that I didn’t notice. I’ve just gone back and it is a very sweet picture. Thank you for sharing!

      • Yes, I’m sure you are very busy with all you have going on right now. Glad you got to see the pic – it was a lovely time 🙂

  5. Wow–so much going on and you manage to squeeze in a great review (which book I am now officially adding to my reading list!). Congratulations on becoming an assessor–that sounds fascinating, and like fun! And getting your house spiffed up to sell, and who knows what exciting thing is coming next….

    • The house process has been fun and exciting but soooo draining. I’m taking care to prioritise and look after myself because after the photos deadline, I can’t take my foot off the gas too much, because I have viewings in ten days, which means keeping on top of the weeds and cleaning constantly.

      I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to seeing just buildings out of the window, rather than 90ft of garden reproaching me.

      • I do understand. One of the reasons we’re living in a condo in the city now. Life has it’s seasons, and it’s best, I think, to pay attention to what our hearts yearn for.

        So glad to hear you’re looking after yourself. That’s not easy to do, especially when things get hectic.

  6. How funny! You are right. so detached they were in general, but now you are qualified. I read that the beginnings of the idea of reincarnation came from the fact that you cannot bury bodies in the snow. You cannot burn them (no fire wood), therefore by feeding their dead beloved people to the wolves, there has to be a “coming back again.” Hence the belief in reincarnation. I don’t now why I said that, except, that things can be overlooked or embellished, depending on how much you “want to move on.”

    Also I realize you are working very hard on getting your house ready. It must be exhausting! Try to get a little rest here and there. Sometimes a 30 minute nap is good. Hollis x

  7. Sounds like a fantastic couple of days with the students and I’m so glad to know you enjoyed the Maria Semple – I’ve had it waiting for me on my tbr pile for a shamefully long time. I’m very encouraged now to pick it up. I also remember trying to sell a house and the amount of cleaning that went into that. I used to think how nice it was to live in such a clean and tidy environment, but to actually keep it like that would have killed me! 🙂

  8. Congratulations on being a qualified assessor! But to be honest, I don’t know what that job involves – Google didn’t help much either. Sounds like a fun job though! (As fun as jobs can be.)

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