Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple centers around Bernadette Fox and her family over the course of several months.
Once a renowned architect, Bernadette now spends most of her time sitting in an Air Stream trailer parked in their backyard. Bernadette’s husband, Elgin, is a high level executive at Microsoft, and her daughter Bee has just graduated from eighth grade at Galer, a prestigious local prep school.
Told in the first person perspective, the book opens with Bee asking her parents for a trip to Antartica as a graduation present. For Bernadette, who is already reclusive and borderline agoraphobic, the idea of such a trip becomes the catalyst for an emotional breakdown.
Soon she is outsourcing the majority of her daily tasks to India and becomes engaged in an all out war with several of the mothers at her daughter’s school, who she refers to as “gnats”.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? begins as a humorous and lighthearted tale. Bernadette’s long and rambling emails to Manjula, the virtual personal assistant she has hired, give the reader hilarious insight into Bernadette’s inner workings. Remarks that might otherwise seem mildly offensive come out of Bernadette with an unabashed matter of factness. In the midst of the humor, however, Semple gives the reader tiny glimpses of an underlying darker storyline.
Bernadette’s marriage is in trouble. Her husband Elgin takes the Microsoft bus to work every day so as to escape his wife an hour early. Bernadette decries what she views as the Seattle chic while her husband thrives in the same environment. Bee loves both her parents deeply but feels abandoned by her father due to his long working hours and is burdened by worry over her mother’s growing eccentricities. Bernadette in turn has been worn down first by several miscarriages, then by worry over Bee’s childhood health issues, and now from the haunting of past failures.
Semple presents all these with humor and grace but does not fall into the trap of painting her characters without fault. Bernadette thinks herself smarter than nearly everyone else and has come to the belief that all of life’s problems can be solved with money. In the midst of this, Semple introduces a bevy of supporting characters such as Audrey, one of the Galer moms, Audrey’s son Kyle who is the school drug dealer, and Soo-Lin-Lee-Segal, Elgin’s assistant and possible lover.
Semple does a brilliant job of creating characters the reader is eager to hate but winds up feeling sympathetic towards. Audrey is oblivious to her son’s extra curricular activities and is dealing with a crumbling marriage of her own. Soo-Lin-Lee is a recent divorcee, newly single mother, and a charter member of Victims against Victimhood (VAV).
Often in novels, supporting characters fade too quickly into the background or fall into the trap of becoming cliched. Semple, however, brings each of them to the foreground just often enough to be integral to the overall storyline but not so much as to interfere with the plot of the main characters. In addition, Semple confronts the cliches head on and treats them with a humor that is almost surgical in its precision and delicacy. Semple divides Where’d You Go, Bernadette? into seven parts. Each part deals with a different aspect of the titular question, weaving it into a complex literal and metaphorical form.
Viewers of Mad About You or Arrested Development will already be familiar with Semple’s comedic style as she was a writer on both shows. Readers who enjoyed Rob Reid’s Year Zero may also enjoy Where’d You Go, Bernadette?. In both cases, the author draws heavily from significant personal experiences. Reid drew from his career in the music industry, and as with Bernadette, Semple struggled with adapting in her move from Los Angeles to Seattle.
Each book shares the same sense of satire and the same poking fun at the “societal elite”. In addition, Semple and Reid manage to avoid the bitter, angry tone that is so often infused into satire by injecting a healthy amount of self-deprecation. Also the two novels combine a sizable chorus of characters into a single coherent storyline.
Year Zero though more of a sci-fi novel in the same vein as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, reminded me of Where’d You Go, Bernadette due to similarities in humor style and the mixing of darker undertones.
As with Nick Carter in Year Zero, Bernadette finds herself caught in a series of events that spiral beyond her control almost before she is even aware of them transpiring. Also, both Nick and Bernadette find themselves in situations where they must play victim to those they have previously victimized. Finally, Bernadette like Nick, discovers that the secret to finding herself might mean placing herself in the middle of her deepest fears and insecurities.
I found Where’d You Go, Bernadette? to be a quick and easy read. The light-hearted tone in the beginning sets the mood and remains upbeat despite more intense plot developments. Semple’s primary strength is characterization. She does an excellent job of taking characters that are otherwise unlikeable and making them likeable. One element that was of particular interest to me was that despite Semple’s talent for and background in creating witty believable dialogue, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is told from a first person narrative using emails, police reports, and other documentation.
Overall I found the characters fit into the storyline well and did not overly detract from the plot. In the case of Kennedy (Bee’s best friend) and Kyle, however, it seemed that Semple built two characters and then lost track of what to do with them. Kennedy, in particular, gave the impression of having a more significant role only to abruptly fade into the background. Kyle, although important in terms of the impact his actions had on other characters, seemed to have no purpose other than to serve as filler in places where the plot began to slightly drag. Finally, Semple’s ending was abrupt and did not fit well with the rest of the novel.