Where’d You Go, Bernadette
by Maria Semple
I picked up this comedy for a quick read when I was struggling to get into another book and it turned out to be much better than I had expected: funny but also original and compelling.
The story is told from the perspective of 15-year-old Seattle-resident Bee (short for Balakrishna), whose mother Bernadette has gone missing. Who Bernadette really is and why she disappeared is gradually pieced together and it’s both an odder story and a more relatable one than it at first appears.
“The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, ‘What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.’ You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question. When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, ‘The truth is complicated. There’s no way one person can ever know everything about another person.’ “
Semple rips into Seattle culture, but it’s humour with an edge of fondness. She satirizes the dominance of Microsoft and its influence over the city, the difficulty of being a retiring artistic type in a social group that puts pressure on to get involved at your child’s school. But she also acknowledges that, unlike in California (where Bernadette and her husband Elgie moved from), people in Seattle (including teenage children) aren’t obsessed with fashion or the latest gizmos.
The story is mostly told through e-mails and letters, with some being brief notes and others much longer storytelling affairs. This meant there were not only lots of voices, but some characters were depicted in multiple facets of their life and I thought this was handled well. It was a nice update to the epistolary style without feeling like it was trying too hard to be modern (except where mocking modernity).
“Your mission statement says Galer Street [School] is based on global ‘connectitude’. (You people don’t just think outside the box, you think outside the dictionary!)…you must emancipate yourselves from what I am calling Subaru Parent mentality and start thinking more like Mercedes Parents…Grab your crampons because we have an uphill climb. But fear not: I do underdog.”
I liked the combination of themes dealt with – there’s career versus family (for men and women) and how everyone, even your nearest and dearest, is a mystery to everyone but themselves. The book also touches on technological developments (through the character of Elgie) and the fight to balance societal and commercial pressures. And without giving anything away, I loved the final section, which could have felt like it just wrapped everything up neatly, but managed to steer clear of that, just as it managed to get emotional without seeming mawkish.
Semple’s is the comedy of everyday irritations and she judges well the point when something stops being funny or when it stops being acceptable to get annoyed. Not that that line is never crossed, but the character in question stops being sympathetic, which is such a realistic means of showing up character flaws.
I must admit that, more than a week later, this book hasn’t particularly stayed with me, but as you can tell I enjoyed it while it lasted.
Published 2012 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.