Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Little, Brown and Company; 336 pages; $25.99)
Reading Maria Semple’s wickedly hilarious novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I couldn’t help but wonder is this the end of the traditional narrative? Semple uses only emails, letters, journal articles, memos, receipts, TED talks, emergency room bills, FBI correspondence, and press releases to tell the bold story of a Seattle wife and mother, Bernadette, who disappears. The ways in which Semple ties all these unusual forms together makes for highly entertaining and surprisingly compelling reading. Semple does not need conventional narrative at all in Where’d You
The hilarity begins when Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, an eighth-grader, receives her report card from the Galer Street School, “a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet.” The school wants to build the self-esteems of its over-privileged students, meaning no numerical grades are given. An “S” means the student “surpasses excellence.” “A” denotes the child “achieves excellence.” Finally, “W” tells parents the student is “working towards excellence.” Bee scores straight-S’s.
Graduation is not far off. Bee reminds her parents, Bernadette and Elgin, that they promised that, if she got straight-S’s the whole way through, she could have whatever she wanted. Bee has decided she wants the family to take a trip to Antarctica. Her parents say yes.
Taking this trip will be very difficult for Bernadette, as she suffers from agoraphobia. She enlists the help of Manjula, an employee of Delhi Virtual Assistants International and Bernadette’s out-sourced personal assistant. Bernadette often sees Manjula as more than just a business acquaintance, however; Bernadette thinks Manjula is her friend. She even pours her heart out to Manjula in emails. Manjula, though, prefers an arms-length approach. In response to a long email from Bernadette, Manjula is polite but terse.
“It would be my pleasure to assist you with your family travel plans to Antarctica. Attached please find the contract for moving forward on a full-time basis. Where indicated, please include your bank routing number. I look forward to our continued collaboration,” Manjula writes. It is abundantly clear that Bernadette has never had her identity or credit card stolen. Bernadette cares only that she is getting a deal. Manjula costs seventy-five cents an hour; that is thirty dollars per week. Bernadette will let her “friend” Manjula plan everything.
The truth is that Bernadette just doesn’t have any friends. Because she does not like to be around people, Bernadette does not venture out much, if at all. Furthermore, she feels so out of place in Seattle. She previously lived in Los Angeles and felt more at home there. Bernadette was not always damaged emotionally. Slowly, Semple reveals what happened to Bernadette to affect her so much. Bit by bit, the reader understands Bernadette more clearly.
Bernadette was a successful and much-lauded architect in LA: “Saint Bernadette: The Most Influential Architect You’ve Never Heard Of.” She received a prestigious MacArthur grant and was achieving great success until she and Elgin had to leave LA very suddenly.
In Seattle, she is like a fish out of water. Bernadette is just out of her element. The moms at the Galer Street School, an institution built on community, compassion, and volunteerism, despise her. Bernadette never helps with anything. Except once. And who can blame Bernadette for never helping again?
“Five years ago, there was an auction item listed in a brochure for the Galer Street School…It read, “CUSTOM TREE HOUSE: Third-grade parent Bernadette Fox will design a tree house for your child, supply all materials, and build it herself.” No one placed a bid. Have these parents never heard of Google?
Bernadette hates the other Galer Street moms so much that she refers to them as “gnats,” because “they’re annoying, but not so annoying that you actually want to spend valuable energy on them.” Bernadette’s rants against them are utterly laugh-out-loud funny.
Then again, Bernadette is not that fond of her husband, Elgin, who works for Microsoft. He is so beloved at the company that he is second only to Bill Gates himself. Elgin is famous for giving the fourth most-watched TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) talk, his colleagues treat him like a rock star. He is less than a rock star at home, that is for sure, as he is hardly ever there.
Bernadette and Bee are left alone together much of the time. Their mother-daughter bond is strong. That’s why, after Bernadette goes missing, that Bee takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance. Bee sorts through all the emails, receipts, bills, invoices, articles, and the other mixed-media Semple provides to find her mother and takes us with her on an incredible, unexpected journey.
I will go so far as to say Where’d You Go, Bernadette surprised me. Semple constructs a convincing plot, creates fully-imagined characters, and satirizes Seattle culture.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is perfect for our times. We live in a world of truncated communication: tweets, status updates, emails, and text messages. The way we correspond is changing. Should fiction reflect this transformation? Sometimes. Is this the future of fiction? No, but every once in a while, mixing it up is nice. The art of the traditional narrative will never die, but I predict a growing niche for mixed-media (much like the growth of flash fiction in recent years). It’s not for everybody, but I thoroughly enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette for its boldness and uniqueness.