A review of Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Whenever I needed an excuse for something questionable I’d done as a child, I made up a story. Some of those stories — there were a lot of them — were colorful, detailed, and complex, based on the theory that the more I talked, the more likely it was that my parents would get bored and hence the less likely I would be punished. That actually seemed to work. Often as not, instead of moving to do something tragic, such as confine me to my room for a day, they would roll their eyes and say, “A likely story!”
Now, you may not be able to hear the intonation in that phrase, as I do, but I hope you get the point: the tale I’d told was beyond the realm of credibility, since my imagination had run away with me.
In that same sense, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a likely story.
I picked up this book because so many of the reviews I’d seen had labeled it “hilarious.” Sadly, I didn’t find it hilarious. Amusing, yes, even genuinely funny at times. Unusually well written, to be sure. Cleverly plotted, without question. And imaginative — to the max.
The Bernadette of the title is a 40-something suburban mom in Seattle who is anything but typical (if, in fact, there is such a person). She is a refugee from a former life in L.A., where by happenstance she was awarded a McArthur “genius” grant for her bold, unconventional work in architecture. Bernadette was “green” before there was green, or so the story goes. However, shortly after the national recognition she received as a result of the grant, Bernadette went off the rails and fled to Seattle with her husband, Elgin, who had conveniently sold his artificial intelligence company to Microsoft and secured a senior position to continue his work there.
Cut to Seattle, where the tale begins. Bernadette and Elgin have purchased a cavernous former “school for wayward girls” on a hilltop overlooking one of the city’s exclusive, high-income suburbs. Their 15-year-old daughter Bee (nee Balakrishna) narrates the unfolding story of Bernadette’s protracted nervous breakdown and later disappearance, interspersing her commentaries with email messages and official documents.
Author Maria Semple, who lives in Seattle, has practically nothing good to say about the place, and Microsoft bothers her, too. In fact, Semple doesn’t seem to like much of anything or anybody, as absolutely no one in this cockamamie novel comes off as completely sane and desirable — except for Antarctica, which possesses the rare virtues of being home to lots of penguins and very few people. You’ll have to find out for yourself how the story gravitates from Seattle to Antarctica.