Review: Maria Semple’s ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’
August 17, 2012
ASPEN – For her second novel, Maria Semple had planned on examining the small town she grew up in. Semple, a comedy writer who has worked on the TV shows “Arrested Development” and “Mad About You,” abandoned that idea to write a novel set in the big city where she currently lives.
That decision makes me sigh, both in relief and disappointment. While I shudder to think about the ghosts and tragic flaws Semple would have unearthed from her hometown, I couldn’t wait to see how Semple’s satirical eye landed on that uniquely quirky place where she was raised – Aspen.
Instead of Aspen, it is Seattle that gets skewered in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Semple moved to the Pacific Northwest several years ago seeking refuge from Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean that the Emerald City gets a free pass from Semple’s sharp, satirical eye. Semple’s first novel, “This One Is Mine,” roasted L.A. with piercing wit, and Seattle gets the same treatment, one that starts out with cold venom but eventually – and surprisingly and gracefully – finds warmth and affection in that place she set out to lambaste.
Bernadette Fox is a fallen genius, a brilliant architect who left her career behind in a rage of professional disillusionment, personal frustration and familial circumstance – namely, her daughter, Bee. Bernadette takes out her all-consuming anger on Seattle – or at least the slice of Seattle she is forced to contend with, the aspirational, left-lurching, environmentally correct, multicultural community centered around the private Galer Street School. Long retired from architecture, unconcerned about the blackberry-bush roots that have invaded her house, content to allow her husband, Elgie, to bury himself in his high-profile Microsoft job, Bernadette has plenty of time to focus on the irritations peculiar to Seattle: the rain, the influx of Canadians, the greener-than-thou posturing. And the most unavoidable irritant of all, the “gnats” – the parents of 15-year-old Bee’s Galer Street classmates.
Semple’s ear for satirizing this world is sharp and scathingly funny; she could probably turn her novel into a stand-up act. And her device for telling the story – an assemblage of emails, doctor’s reports, transcripts of presentations, and Bernadette’s correspondence to the personal assistant in India who handles everything down to dinner reservations – adds a layer to the humor: We get to hear the gnats, the Microsofties, the school administrators, in their own self-satisfied voices.
When the mudslinging really kicks in – Bernadette has her blackberry bushes removed, causing a literal mudslide into the home of one of the gnats – Bernadette’s mental condition begins to slide, too. That trip she promised Bee, to Antarctica – no way she can deal with that. Nor can she simply admit to Bee that she’s too fragile for such an adventure. So Bernadette simply vanishes, and the book takes a wild turn, from the gloom of the Northwest to the cruise ships and ice near the southern tip of the planet.
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As with “This One Is Mine,” Semple works here in emotional misdirection. Bernadette’s bitter take on the world builds and builds. But there are simultaneous flashes of her intelligence and her devotion to Bee, and we begin to ponder: Between Bernadette and the rest of the world, could Bernadette actually be the more sane one? Still, the dysfunction, isolation and rage pile up so high that we don’t see the sweetness, compassion and parental affection coming. What began as just a satirical jab at Seattle becomes a fuller story of the whole big tangle of emotions.
And now that Semple has had her way with Seattle, I’m ready to see what she’s got to say about Aspen. At least, I think I’m ready.