Monday, February 25, 2013

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Sometimes a book can be hilariously funny, bitingly critical of contemporary society and businesses, and wholly unpredictable. Maria Semple’s 2012 novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, is all of these things and more. I have to admit that I picked up the book because of its cover, and because I was looking for something humorous. The first time I started reading it, I put it down quite quickly when I discovered that it consisted mostly of letters, memos, directives to employees and all manner of communications without, apparently, a central narrator or a plausible theme. I don’t usually care for novels that consist primarily of letters between the main characters. However, once I gave the book a chance and read into it fifty pages or so, I couldn’t put it down.

Turns out there is a central narrator; she is a middle school student named Bee Branch, and her mother, Bernadette, is a celebrated architect who no longer designs houses, or anything else for that matter. Her father, Elgie, is a computer whiz who has already built a computer company and sold it to Microsoft for a very handsome profit; he is also famous for a TED talk (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) and a member of a very elite team at Microsoft working on a hush-hush project that requires almost all of his time.

Bee is an only child who has already survived a number of heart surgeries as an infant and young child; she is a bristlingly bright girl who has achieved perfect grades in middle school and has requested as her reward a family trip to Antartica. Her parents have told her she could have anything she wanted if she graduated from middle school with straight As, and extraordinary youngster that she is, she has requested the trip to Antarctica. Unfortunately, her mother Bernadette is not only agoraphobic but also given to extreme seasickness, and her father finds it difficult to take a day off of work, let alone the weeks, even months, that the trip will require. And thus the plot thickens.

Because of Elgie’s position at Microsoft, the family has had to move from their home in California to Seattle; Bernadette has not only had to move from a home she is famous for having designed, but has been forced to move to a city she despises—a city she sees as full of ridiculously overzealous moms, overly polite drivers, and much too close to Idaho (not to mention Canada). The combination has brought her nearly to a nervous breakdown, and she has had to hire a virtual assistant in India to help her plan the trip to Antarctica and to deal with even the basic tasks of day to day living. 

After some bitter (and very funny) fights with neighbors and moms from her daughter’s school, and some serious problems that crop up with the alleged virtual assistant in India, Elgie thinks it appropriate to have his wife committed involuntarily to a mental institution, at which time Bernadette simply disappears. Hence the title, Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
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.”  

Mom disappears into thin air two days before Christmas without telling me? Of course it’s complicated. Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.
It doesn’t mean I can’t try.
Don’t suppose that I’m giving away too much about this delightful book; what I’ve quoted above occurs on the first page, so the reader knows immediately that Bernadette will disappear, the only question is when, and what leads up to it. 

Bernadette calls the overzealous moms “gnats,” and she treats them with offhand contempt that she does not even try to hide from her daughter. Nor does she hide her opinion of the private school her daughter attends and its unceasing efforts to attract what a fundraiser calls “Mercedes Parents.” The fundraiser urges the parents to emancipate themselves from “Subaru Parent mentality”, and to aim at the $200K+ parents whose children are about to enter kindergarten. 

Besides the quite hilarious barbs directed towards snobby private schools, Semple also has plenty to say about Microsoft and the elitist mentality of its think-tank employees. If their work is not their purpose-in-life, their mission, they don’t last long.

Without telling you more about the twists and turns in the plot, I will mention Bee and her dad make it to Antarctica, which provides the reader some astute commentary on the very expensive guided tours and the companies that arrange them. 

All in all, the novel is full of surprises, totally unpredictable from page to page, and hilarious throughout. Semple is a wonderful writer. The brilliant, dyspeptic Bernadette and her  equally bright and candid daughter keep the reader both laughing and thinking! I’m not sure I could articulate what I learned from reading this novel, but I know that I enjoyed it, and I think you will too.

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