Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple’s second novel, is as much of a darkly humorous satire of modern-day Seattle as it is a heart-warming tale of a daughter who refuses to give up on her mother. Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, pieces together the weeks before her mother’s mysterious disappearance through a series of letters, emails, handwritten exchanges, conversations, and even a transcript of a TED talk in an epistolary delight that is positively flawless.
Bee has done extremely well in school; her eighth grade report card is full of top scores and glowing comments, and she has been offered early admission at the prestigious boarding school her mother attended. Her parents allow her to choose her reward and, to Bernadette’s horror, Bee chooses a three-week cruise to Antarctica. Bernadette has crippling agoraphobia and prefers to isolate herself from the community, so three weeks ‘in captivity’ is her idea of a nightmare. But her devotion to her daughter wins over and Bernadette begins planning the trip with a little help from Manjula Kapoor, her virtual personal assistant on the other side of the world. Planning the trip sets in motion a chaotic series of events that ultimately lead to the inexplicable disappearance of Bernadette.
Bernadette is an eccentric, genius personality placed in an environment not conducive to her creativity. In short, she feels isolated, and her social anxieties have drastically increased during her time living in Seattle. When Bernadette takes issue with something she simply doesn’t let it go and her razor-sharp quips about Seattle are what makes Semple’s novel so deeply hilarious. Her cracks about Seattle extend to its residents and focus primarily on her neighbour, Audrey, and the other ‘gnats’ (read: other parents) at her daughter’s school, the socially progressive Galer Street School. What starts as a domestic issue involving blackberries spirals out of control in a pointed and yet warmly packaged attack at privileged communities and their tendency to blow trivial issues out of proportion. The irony that Semple and her family call Seattle home is not lost, I assure you.
Semple’s characters are the heroes of the novel. Almost everyone is smart and brilliant; especially Bernadette’s husband Elgin. He is Microsoft’s version of a rock star, a demigod, having delivered the fourth-most viewed TED talk of all time about a secret project that is close to Bill Gates’s heart. Bernadette adores Elgie, but has come to resent all that his company represents in Seattle – the painful corporate shtick stands in stark contrast to Bernadette’s younger years when she frugally constructed the ’20 Mile House’ – a house made from materials sourced within a 20 mile radius of the site of her house. Bernadette’s struggle to reconcile these two competing forces represents the novel’s overall battle between new and old knowledge, and whether or not they can peacefully coexist in modern society.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette isn’t always a light read. The characters, though magnificent, are complicated and realistically flawed. There is an affair, an unexpected pregnancy, and adolescent drug abuse. It’s real life, amplified, and Semple clearly isn’t afraid to tackle big issues. Thankfully, she does so with the poise and grace of an accomplished writer, making uncomfortable issues accessible to a wide audience. This accessibility is due largely to Semple’s skill as a screenwriter; having worked on television shows including Arrested Development and Mad About You. Her unwavering ability to command many opposing voices creates an ingenious and seamless narrative. Mixed media fiction has arrived in spectacular fashion, though readers will be hard pressed to find a better example from this emerging genre.
Semple’s sharp, imaginative and wickedly funny voice brings a clever and compelling story to life. It’s surprising and heartfelt, and an utter delight from start to finish.