Author Maria Semple (Leta Warner / Little, Brown…)
Where'd You Go, Bernadette
Little, Brown: 330 pp., $25.99
Bernadette has a problem — well, actually, she has a few. She is entirely exasperated by the way the streets are laid out in Seattle. She dislikes Canadians. She's not interested in helping out at her daughter's school, which values parental involvement and "global connectitude." She can be vocal, inclined toward sharing her opinions with her adolescent daughter Bee and brilliant, patient husband. Her opinions — they are the problem. In one context, they are funny riffs; taken out of context, they can look like rants. And maybe a little insane.
As the title of Maria Semple's delightful novel "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" makes clear, Bernadette has gone missing. The story of the weeks leading to her disappearance and what happens after is told by Bee, who loves her mother, idiosyncrasies and all. Bright and endlessly curious, Bee assembles a variety of documents — emails, memos, handwritten exchanges, magazine articles, police reports — and links them with a few personal observations. It's an epistolary novel, modern style.
When the story begins, Bee has done so well in eighth grade that she demands her parents make good on an idle promise: that the family take a cruise to Antarctica. Her father, Elgin, is game, even though he'll have to take time off from Microsoft, where he's leading an important project. Bernadette says she'll go too; although she's reluctant to follow through, she begins planning their trip anyway.
It's not much work. Unbeknownst to her family, Bernadette has used the Internet to outsource her daily responsibilities to a virtual personal assistant, Manjula Kapoor. For the price of just 75 cents an hour, Manjula buys their tickets, orders gear and even makes the family's dinner reservations at a place down the street. Right from the start, Bernadette overshares with Manjula, as if she's a therapist.
"I came up here on a whim, pretty much," she writes in one long e-mail. "We'd been living in L.A. when Elgie's animation company was bought by Big Brother. Whoops, did I say Big Brother? I meant Microsoft. Around the same time, I'd had a Huge Hideous Thing happen to me (which we definitely do not need to get into.) Let's just say it was so huge and so hideous that it made me want to flee L.A. and never return." Manjula gives a terse two-line response, but Bernadette hangs onto the relationship, no matter how unequal.
Bernadette has become isolated, left to stew in her own obsessions. She focuses on the unpleasant mothers from Bee's school, whom she calls gnats. (Not nice. But as we see from their e-mail exchanges, the animosity goes both ways.) And she complains about Seattle.
That city, the subject of so many of Bernadette's rants, gets a satiric treatment that's more sweet than sour. And its most amusingly rendered aspects — the exceedingly progressive school, a jargon-spouting fundraiser, ostentatiously eco-conscious neighbors — could be found in any upper-class suburb. Yet Bee's family, which moved into a falling-down former girls school, remains apart, particularly the truculent Bernadette.
In L.A., she had worked as an architect. After Bee was born early and sick, raising her became Bernadette's only project. Surprisingly, it turns out she's a legend — her career was so individual and rarefied that she got a MacArthur "genius" grant. Then, abruptly, it ended.
Semple's characters are marvelous: They have untold secrets, personalities with multiple dimensions, moments of failure and grace. Maybe this is what Semple learned writing for the television show "Mad About You." Before she left Hollywood — like Bernadette, Semple now lives in Seattle — she was a producer on"Arrested Development,"and there is quite a bit of that show's unexpected, antic plotting in this novel. Its many twists and turns are genuinely surprising, so unexpected that I feel bad about mentioning the MacArthur fellowship.
Bernadette isn't the family's only genius: Elgin has given a TED talk — the fourth most-watched one — about the project he's working on at Microsoft. He's all humility, padding around in stocking feet, staying late and quietly worrying about Bernadette. Although she's not around for the planned trip, Elgin goes on it with Bee anyway, trying to be a good dad in a bad situation.
I have to admit, this book does not fall in my sweet spot. A warm and humorous family drama, set in an upscale suburb, narrated by an unusually intelligent teenager — all those descriptors typically would send me running.
But I've seen Semple read; she was delightful and clever. She has written a fantastic, funny novel. Its affecting characters, not-necessarily-nice humor and surprising plot twists make this novel an enchanting ride.