Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the perfect airplane read. I know this, because I cracked it open in the LAX airport at about 5:30 on Sunday, and finished it at 10:15, about 5000 feet above SeaTac.
In it, we meet two protagonists: Bernadette, who disappears a few days before Christmas, and her 15 year old daughter, Bee, who is attempting to solve the mystery of her missing mother. Bernadette is an amplified version of author Maria Semple, a former Los Angeleno who moved to Seattle and is the parent of a private schooler.
Bernadette has developed a pretty severe social anxiety, and refuses to volunteer at Bee’s private school. The school is undergoing a makeover, and every parent is expected to help out, so snark ensues among the other moms. Before long, Bernadette’s ambivalence towards the other parents results in a major mudslide and Bernadette cracks. Bee is the only witness to that pivotal moment and shares a close relationship with her mother, so she’s the only person who can figure out where Bernadette went.
What I Liked
Let me start with the things I liked (because on the whole, I enjoyed the novel):
The book is a mixed media, epistolary novel. In my college days as a student of creative writing, I loved exploring the ways I could tell a story through modern day equivalents of epistles: emails, text messages, instant messages, blog posts (of course, that was five years ago, and now I would add tweets and facebook messages or maybe even event invites to that list.)
Semple uses things like invoices, newspaper articles, the transcript of a TED talk, and emails between different characters to tell her story. She even explains how Bee came in possession of the contents of other people’s email inboxes, which is clever (although I’m dubious that it’s as easy to hack into the inboxes of Microsoft executives as she makes it out to be.)
By letting us in to the private thoughts of each character, Semple’s narrators are perfectly unreliable and complex. The book is divided into five or six parts, and in each part, I changed my mind about one of the characters. In part one, I unquestioningly liked Bernadette. By part three, I thought she was crazy. In part one, Audrey, Bernadette’s neighbor and the parent of one of Bee’s classmates, was an evil villain. In the final chapters, she was the deus ex machine who allows for the story’s resolution.
What I Didn’t Like
There were several things in the novel that stuck out and didn’t jive for me. These are nitpicky things, but significant enough that I had to stop, reread, and question.
- Bernadette wears capri pants. In December. In Seattle. No one does that.
- The timeline of the story didn’t add up for me. Bernadette moved to Seattle 15 years prior to the events of the book, but experienced several miscarriages before Bee was born … but Bee is 15 years old.
- The catalog of Bernadette’s (and by extension, Semple’s) complaints about Seattle were almost entirely about the drivers and the roads. Let me be clear: Seattle drivers suck. Maybe even me, a little bit, sometimes. But after living in a city for fifteen years, if her biggest complaint is drivers, then she probably actually likes the city pretty well. Also, after that much time, she probably would actually have adopted that notoriously Seattle attitude of indifference.
- I will give Semple credit for verisimilitude: her descriptions of the streets and places in Seattle was right on. However, at one point in the novel, a few characters make the trek from the Microsoft campus in Redmond to Downtown Seattle to eat at Wild Ginger (a real restaurant, and a good one at that.) It’s a plot device to get two of the characters in the same place at the same time, but I really don’t believe that Microsoft employees would go all the way to Wild Ginger in Downtown Seattle, on a whim, for lunch, because there’s a location in Bellevue and any logical person would go there instead.
- Does anyone write dialogue in emails?! Seriously.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a fun and lighthearted read. Maria Semple was one of the writers of the best show ever (Arrested Development) so I trusted her understanding of comedy, and could laugh with (or maybe at the expense of) the characters. Semple took to heart the bit of writing advice that says “show, don’t tell” – everything that we learn about the characters is a plot point, or gives insight into a different character’s worldview.
The book received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. I recommend it as well.