I’ve been intrigued by Where’d You Go, Bernadette for some time. I kept seeing it on shelves and in book reviews and most people talked about it with gusto. But something about what I felt of its tone — its cover, perhaps? — put me off. Then Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012) was recently named a finalist for the Women’s Prize, yet another endorsement that kept me wondering if I was missing something. The tipping point came, though, when I heard that Maria Semple was a writer on the television show Arrested Development. I went to the library immediately.
When the novel begins, fifteen-year-old Bee tells us that her mother disappeared — most likely ran away — two days before Christmas and hasn’t been seen since. Her father, Elgin, annoyingly tells her it isn’t her fault. She’s not dumb; she knows that already. She also knows that her mother would never simply abandon her, so she’s on a quest to find her.
Part of this quest involves sifting through the clues left from the few months before Bernadette disappeared. Much of the novel, then, is a compilation of found objects — emails, blog posts, text messages, bills, police reports, even a transcription of a TED talk — pasted together to form a narrative.
Indeed, the novel begins with Bee’s report card. She’s superior in every way. Years earlier, her parents told her that if she performed well, she could choose anything she wanted. So she springs it on them with the report card: she wants the family to go to Antarctica over Christmas.
Emails from Bernadette to Manjula Kapoor, an Indian woman who works as a sort of outsourced concierge service Bernadette uses for every little thing, serve as our window into the mind of the woman who has disappeared. We learn that Bernadette is full of wit and charm but is an agoraphobic. She does go out, usually to go places with Bee (I was genuinely touched by her affection for and dedication to her daughter, despite her affliction), but for twenty years or so she hasn’t involved herself in society. Instead, she spends her days in their gigantic home on the hill, an old school for girls, that is falling apart around them (the metaphors are not subtle, and, sadly, despite that Semple often spells them out). The other parents at Bee’s progressive (and parentally invasive) school hate Bernadette.
Enter: Audrey Griffin, Bernadette’s aggressively passive-agressive neighbor down the hill. Audrey is a busy-body who complains constantly and passes all blame onto others. She’s repulsive, going so far as to involve Bee in her petty spats with Bernadette, an agressively passive woman who refuses to engage. Here’s a particularly loathsome, though typical, conversation Audrey has with Bee:
“I hear you’re going to boarding school,” she said. “Whose idea was that?”
“Mine,” I said.
“I could never send Kyle to boarding school,” Audrey said.
“I guess you love Kyle more than my mom loves me,” I said, and played my flute as I skipped down the hall.
You can see by her response at the end that Bee has no doubts whatsoever about her mother’s affections.
At about this time, we learn that Bernadette used to be an esteemed architect, one of the only women architects to be mentioned in the same breath as the big men in the field. She was “green before there was green,” constructing her famous “20 Mile House” only out of materials that originated with a 20-mile radius. Nothing could be shipped in. Nothing could be wasted. She was a big deal and won a Guggenheim. But something happened twenty years ago that caused her and Elgin to uproot themselves from Los Angeles and move to Seattle, where she’s remained in hiding.
In that introduction, I’m sure I’ve failed to show just how funny this novel is. The plot is absurd but air-tight — nothing is wasted while we work our way from Seattle to, eventually, Antarctica, with plenty of hijinks in between as Bernadette navigates the upper-crust of Seattle with increasing exasperation. When she reaches out to one of her old colleagues, Bernadette says, “I’ve been resolving the conflict between public and private space in the single-family residence.”
I found the concept of the book admirable. A book constructed from found materials, matching a house made from found materials, all to underscore a family in pieces that need to be put together again. Indeed, to be put together again by shedding all the fluff, even if that means going to a place so free from the world as Antarctica.
Still, though I admired much about this book, at about 1/3 of the way through I was anxious to move on. As cleverly structured as it is, we see the devices used to construct it from a mile away. The lengthy emails to Manjula do serve an important plot point, but they are exploited to give the readers Bernadette’s thoughts, she being unavailable. These emails themselves are plotted, digressing to give us a lengthy description of the Seattle sky, allowing us to suck it all in, before moving on to what usually amounts to a punchline. We need to suspend disbelief. All of that is fine and understandable. This novel’s goal is not realism, and that’s no fault, but I do tire quickly when I see the author working so hard to direct me emotionally.
Such manipulation is more grievous from my perspective when the characters themselves are exploited to score emotional points. Several of the characters change drastically during the course of the novel — drastically, suddenly, sentimentally. A few of them come to sudden realizations about how foolish they’ve been — sometimes the lights go on and they see how blindly foolish they were just seconds before — within one paragraph. They hammer hard, meanly, on something, and then, when the damage is done, they shift sides; all of this is to make what immediately follow more tragic or more sentimental.
I also had problems with the comedy. First, I did like some of it: á la P.G. Wodehouse, Semple does a great job bringing in something that was seemingly innocuous from a chapter or two ago to great and unexpected comedy. But much of the comedy relies on snarky observations — wittily plotted to maximize irony — from Bernadette, Bee, and Audrey. It’s Seinfeldian. It’s funny. It gets so tiring.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a satire with heart. For me, too much of each, in fact. I felt that Semple meddled too much to get us to laugh or cry. Perhaps such things work best on television.