Publication date: August 14th 2012
Oftentimes when a book is filled with such outrageous, politically incorrect, hilarious humor it can become one note. Thankfully, when handled by a gifted author with the ability to create multi-faceted characters and situations this is not the case with Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Maria Semple is one of those people whose work you read and think, “I’d really like to go out for a drink with her.” Her writing credits include Arrested Development and Mad About You, two shows that rank right up there for wit and humanity.
Bernadette is a talented architect who, due to an unfortunate series of events, relocates with her husband from Los Angeles to Seattle. The transition is not an easy one and she finds much to dislike about Seattle. On the other hand, her husband thrives as a cult-like hero-figure at Microsoft and her daughter (born after several miscarriages) is, by the eighth grade, not only well adjusted and well liked but brilliant. This, despite being given the name Balakrishna (she goes by Bee). Why then is Bernadette holed up in her decrepit house, living life online to the point of giving over all her personal information to an online assistant in India? Part of the truth becomes apparent when she reveals she’d like to go to the South Pole
If for no other reason than to be able to put my hand on the South Pole marker and declare that the world literally revolved around me.
Bernadette’s neuroses and narcissism escalate until her beleaguered husband is forced to try an intervention at which point she disappears. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is told partly from Bee’s perspective as she gathers a paper trail of emails and personal documents to find her mother. In light of her academic achievements she is sent off to boarding school a semester early, a move she was looking forward to, but with her mother gone she cannot adjust to this new life and returns home.
This is one of those elusive books to review because what you really want to say is ‘it’s so funny, it’s so damn funny’ and stop there but it is so much more. Using humor Semple gives us a snapshot of contemporary American life and hones the picture further by centering the world in Seattle and at the land of Microsoft, one of the few places in Seattle that Bernadette does not loathe.
“What’s Microsoft’s mission anyway” I asked, wolfing down a piece of Costco birthday cake. It was Costco day on campus, and they were signing people up for discounted membership, using free sheet cake as enticement. No wonder I get confused and sometimes mistake the place for Utopia.
In the midst of this world within a world she explores the new culture of business, rife with all its jargon and secret society attitudes. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is not a morality tale but amongst the pages of snarkiness there are many occasions where self-recognition may occur—am I the overbearing mother? The anti-social neighbor? The status mad wife? The proud acronym spouting member of a self-help group? Semple covers a lot of humanity’s bases and with such a strong light no one can hide. Bernadette may be a whack job and has possibly let her neuroses lead her off the trail of normal to crazy town but she is not lost. She knows where she is and she knows how to get back and the reader will enjoy every minute of the journey.
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