Book review Tuesday: Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple
It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel as fast-paced, witty, and enjoyable as Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I had heard good things about this book for close to a year but hadn’t bought it because, as usual, I had about a million other books stacked in my Kindle queue already. But then I heard Linda Holmes mention it on Pop Culture Happy Hour last month and decided it was time to dig in. (Also, I unquestioningly trust everything Linda Holmes says).
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is narrated principally by Bee, an eighth grader at Galer Street, an aspirational private school in Seattle, who is searching for her missing mother, Bernadette. When the story begins, we meet Bee’s father, Elgie, a big deal at Microsoft who spends most waking hours at his office working on a high profile robotics project, and her mother, Bernadette, who was once the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant and a rising star in the world of architecture, but who now spends her days in a trailer behind the family home, refusing to come out or interact with the world unless absolutely necessary. When Bernadette does interact with the world, bad things happen: accusations of assault, unintentional landslides, and escalating gossip and rumors. As Bernadette increasingly alienates herself from the cliquey, upper-middle class, Seattle-focused world of the other mothers at her daughter’s school, she turns to help from an online personal assistant in India, a decision that ends up having unforeseen and rather dire consequences. Without giving the entire plot away, suffice it to say that Bernadette decides, just before a planned family trip to Antarctica, that she has to split. She disappears, leaving Bee and Elgie to try to figure out where in the world she went. They travel from Seattle to Antarctica and back in search of Bernadette, with surprising results.
There were several reasons this book was so immensely enjoyable to read. First, its structure: the story is told by Bee, the narrator, who has collected and is commenting upon a series of documents — emails, letters, faxes, pamphlets, invoices — all of which serve as clues in her mother’s disappearance. This makes for fast, fun reading, as the reader is taken into the minds and goings-on of a number of characters, including Bernadette’s array of sworn enemies, her old architecture colleagues, her husband, and others. The result is a complex, incisive portrait of upper-middle class Seattle. Some of the wittiest (and most damning) descriptions of Seattle come from Bernadette herself, who openly despises the city and its ethos, despite having lived there for close to two decades. In one bit of correspondence, for instance, Bernadette sets forth her disdain for Seattle’s collective fashion sense thusly:
Remember when the feds busted in on that Mormon polygamist cult in Texas a few years back? And the dozens of wives were paraded in front of the camera? And they all had this long mouse-colored hair with strands of gray, no hairstyle to speak of, no makeup, ashy skin, Frida Kahlo facial hair, and unflattering clothes? And on cue, the Oprah audience was shocked and horrified? Well, they’ve never been to Seattle.
There are two hairstyles here: short gray hair and long gray hair. You go into a salon asking for hair color, and they flap their elbows and cluck, “Oh goody, we never get to do color!”
This brings me to the second reason this book is so fun to read: voice. Maria Semple absolutely nails the individual voices of the characters, bringing them to vibrant life even through small snippets of conversation and correspondence. Semple avoids creating two-dimensional stock characters, even for bit players. Bernadette, who is without a doubt a flawed, damaged, and cantankerous woman, is also lovable and relatable, and I found myself rooting for her, despite her poor choices. And man, the characters are funny (some unintentionally so). Bernadette gets some pretty solid one-liners off throughout the book. In one of my favorite scenes, Bee and Bernadette are in the car listening to a program on public radio about the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the systemic use of rape as a tool of war. Bee is disgusted and turns the radio off.
“I know it’s horrific,” Mom said. “But you’re old enough. We live a life of privilege in Seattle. That doesn’t mean we can literally switch off these women, whose only fault was being born in the Congo during a civil war. We need to bear witness.” She turned the radio back on.
I crumpled in my seat and fumed.
“The war in Congo rages on and with no end in sight,” the announcer said. “And now comes word of a new campaign by the soldiers, to find the women they have already raped and re-rape them.”
“Holy Christ on a cross!” Mom said. “I draw the line at re-raping.” And she turned off NPR.
The third reason I enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette is its plot, which weaves together many sub-plots to create a layered and absorbing story. My only tiny complaint is that occasionally, Semple relies a bit too heavily on neat coincidences to solve the mystery of where Bernadette went, but I had so much fondness for the story and its characters that it didn’t bother me that much. (This also might be one of those things I notice keenly since I am in the middle of writing a novel and often have to steer myself away from tying things in a bow with fortuitous coincidences, which I fear would end up making the story less believable and a bit too pat). I want to stress, though, that this is not a major detractor from the story; it’s just a small nitpick of mine.
All in all, I highly recommend the novel for anyone looking for a fast, fun read and a peek into the particular world of Seattle’s upper-middle class. Here is a glowing NY Times review, by the way. Also, word on the street is that they’re making the novel into a movie. Better read the book before that happens so you can be on the cutting edge!