Maria Semple Overwrites an Otherwise Total Delight

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (2012)
Maria Semple
Little, Brown ISBN: 978-0316204279

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette is an unorthodox novel with unforgettable characters and an often-lamentable story arc. At its best it is wickedly funny, snarky, and inventive; at its worst it’s as contrived and implausible as TV sit-com scripts, which happen to be among the things on author Maria Semple’s resumé (“Mad About You,” “Arrested Development”). It’s a breezy, fun read, but one that will leave you feeling that maybe Semple equates her readership with some of the not-so-bright Seattle residents she incisively skewers.

The title character is Bernadette Fox, once the sensation of the architectural world and a former winner of a MacArthur Genius grant. Flash forward through professional disappointment, four miscarriages, and fifteen years, and Bernadette is now an agoraphobic eccentric living in Seattle with her husband, Elgin, a high flyer at Microsoft and a TED/YouTube sensation. They finally had a child, the precocious but heart-damaged Bee. She has all of her parents’ intelligence but more social skills than both of them combined. Bee is about to graduate (8th grade) from her expensive private school and go to Choate. As her graduation present, Bee requests a family trip to Antarctica.

Choate and Antarctica are both well within the family budget. Semple clobbers Seattle’s nouveau riche. Her Puget Sound is awash in money, unbridled ambition, and bad taste. Neither Elgin nor Bernadette is sufficiently plugged into reality to be social gadflies. He is an absentee workaholic and she such a recluse that she has outsourced daily routines to Marjula Kapoor, a personal assistant living in India, to whom she sends rambling emails and pays 75 cents per hour to order goods from catalogues and make the occasional appointment that prise her from her home. And what a home it is! It’s neither a McMansion nor an architectural project, rather a former girls’ school whose physical deterioration parallels the decline of Bernadette’s psyche. Think the Adams Family mansion-meets-an old school, complete with holes in the ceiling, roots growing through the floor, waterlogged furniture, and a blackberries-gone-wild hiilside.

Bee doesn’t care, Elgin’s never home, and Bernadette hardly notices as she spends much of her time in an Airstream trailer parked in the drive. The neighbors notice, however, and they gossip incessantly about the family. (The open question is whether they’re all nuts, or simply snobs who think they’re too good for everyone else.) This affects Bee as the neighbor children go to the same snooty school as she. The worst buttinski is Audrey Griffin, who lives on the bottom side of the slope. She sees herself as a devout Christian even as she digs her vicious claws into everyone. Her hypocrisy is hysterical (and we soon learn she’s as batty as Bernadette), but school headmaster Ollie is even more delicious–the perfect lampoon of elite wannabes who mouth clichéd Business Speak and have all the depth of spilled milk on a marble countertop. Pompous asses such as he are among the things that Semple disembowels. Seattle doesn’t come off very well either; it’s a city populated in equal parts by the clueless bourgeoisie and drug-addled criminals. Bernadette hates Seattle, its residents, the weather, and the unbearable niceness of nearby Canadians. Seattle, she notes, has only two types of people: those with short gray hair and those with long gray hair.

Semple has a clever hook for telling her tale. It is assembled mostly from emails, letters, memos, and documents that we later learn are being used by Bee to write a book to unravel the mystery of her mother’s disappearances (both mental and physical). This book could have been another Confederacy of Dunces in its portrait of sociopaths, if only Semple had resisted the impulse to impose a TV-like resolution to everything. I won’t spoil the plot–Semple does that on her own–but let’s just say that there comes a profound shift in tone in which the book ceases to be character-driven and devolves into silly capers with as much believability as a live Elvis crooning for Hitler and his henchmen. There is also a natural place to end the book, but Semple plods on. It’s as if she gave it to a TV writers’ group that convinced her to write a happy ending. All of the bitterness dissolves, all of the brilliant satire disappears, and characters experience epiphanies. Bah! The last section of this book tastes like an artificial sweetener recipe gone wrong. You won’t take this advice, but here it is anyhow: stop reading when Bee and Elgin bond on the boat. The book’s title question should have been left unresolved.
--Rob Weir

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