Maria Semple honed her comic timing as a writer for Mad About You, Ellen, and Arrested Development. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the best kind of summer read – funny and bitingly satirical, yet centered on a warm, loving mother/daughter relationship. And the plot moves quickly, thanks to a wonderful variety of narratives and voices.
One of the things I couldn’t manage to fit into the 250-word review limit is the element of Bernadette’s past. She won a MacArthur genius grant for her work as an early proponent of green architecture, yet she hasn’t worked as an architect since the move to Seattle, since before her daughter Bee was born. What does it do to someone with so much talent to stifle or dismiss her creativity? In Bernadette’s case, well, the phrase “menace to society” does come up.
I love the description (found in this Hollywood Reporter article) of how Semple found the structure for her novel. I’m not at all surprised that it grew out of the e-mail exchanges between Bernadette and her virtual assistant. They are, to me, the funniest parts of the book. “As soon as I wrote the first email something on the page crackled. I answered back in one line response which I thought had really funny comic timing. Then I just thought let’s try to do this whole thing with documents and letters and things like that. That’s why I got really excited when I realized it would be an epistolary novel because I loved the thought of just peering in on some one’s life.”
Adult/High School–Bee Branch’s 8th grade Galer Street School report card describes her as a pure delight, and the same can be said for Semple’s smart, funny novel. As a reward for years of perfect grades, Bee’s parents grant her request for a family trip to Antarctica over the Christmas vacation. Unfortunately, her mother, Bernadette, disappears two days before their scheduled departure. Bee’s narrative of events is interspersed with letters and e-mails between various players–of special note, Bernadette’s correspondence with Manjula Kapour, her too-good-to-be-true virtual assistant in India, who arranges the trip to Antarctica, reservations for Thanksgiving dinner, and anything else Bernadette requires, all for seventy-five cents an hour, and the exchanges between two Galer Street mothers (Bernadette calls them The Gnats) who share their horror and frustration at Bernadette’s lifestyle and choices. A portrait of Bernadette slowly emerges as a recluse who rarely leaves the house. She is devoted to her daughter, dismissive of life in Seattle (which she skewers mercilessly), and increasingly distant from her superstar workaholic Microsoft executive husband, Elgin. When Bernadette gets wind of Elgin’s plan to have her committed, she flees. In the aftermath of her disappearance, readers learn of Bernadette’s surprising, hidden past. It all comes together when Elgin and Bee travel to Antarctica alone, where Bee is stubbornly certain she will find her mother. The denouement is both wacky and moving. Part witty social satire, part family drama, part warning against the perils of stifled creativity, this novel is highly recommended. Even though she mostly addresses adult concerns, Semple’s humor and humanity-filled storytelling will appeal to young adult readers, too.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City