[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0316204269″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41HGJKFdW3L.jpg” width=”220″ alt=”Maria Semple” ]Something Bigger than You.
A Feature Review of
Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel
Paperback: Back Bay Books, 2013
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Reviewed by D.L. Mayfield
I recently moved from the Pacific northwest to the midwest, so forgive me if this seems a bit sentimental. But there is something to be said about the supreme silliness of the sister cities of Portland and Seattle, the expectation for every one of its citizens to embrace nerdery of the relatively unimportant: coffee, visually appealing technology, recumbent bikes, etc. They are the embodiment of cities where the most prominent citizens are busy engaging in the top part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, seemingly on one long continual quest for self-actualization. There is so much to make fun of, and so very much to miss.
Seattle itself hangs around like a character in Maria Semple’s newest novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette. It is a symbol of the title character’s mental state: gray, dreary, prone to fits of self-absorption and inertia—but also quirky, whip-smart, and resolutely itself.
It is hard to write up a succinct plot analysis of Where’d You Go, which is both aggravating for the reviewer and a pleasure for the reader. On the first page we are spoken to by the daughter of the missing Bernadette, one Bee Branch—a precocious 8th grader who narrates the majority of the novel. She tells us this:
“Mom disappears into thin air two days before Christmas without telling me? Of course it’s complicated. Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.
It doesn’t mean you can’t try.”
From there, we are pitched forth into a quick moving tale of getting to the bottom of who Bernadette really is—the reclusive, stylish (always seen with a silk scarf on her head and hiding behind enormous black sunglasses) mother who dotes on her daughter. As Bee starts to investigate her mother’s mysterious disappearance, she uncovers all sorts of secrets—including the one which made her mother move to Seattle all those many moons ago.
Where’d You Go Bernadette reads fast and funny, with the first part of the book composed primarily of different documents and mediums—e-mails, handwritten notes, invoices, transcripts detailing what happened before Bernadette’s disappearance, which moves the plot along beautifully (and allows for humorous voices to shine). Semple was a writer and producer for distinguished comedies like Arrested Development, and she delights in characterizing people for comedic effect and then turning those stereotypes on their heads. One of my favorite characters was Bernadette’s neighbor, a busybody like only Seattle could produce: an organic gardening, gray-haired, status-conscious, self-righteous Audrey Griffen—who also happens to be a Christian. She is the leader of the pack of mothers at Bee’s school who narrow their eyes at Bernadette’s strange, reclusive ways—including her refusal to be involved in the mundane swirl of community: fundraisers, classroom monitoring, baking gluten-free cupcakes. Audrey and Bernadette come head to head after issues arise with Bernadette’s upkeep of the crumbling manse that is their home—an old asylum for girl’s that Bernadette and her husband Elgin, an engineer at Microsoft, bought on a whim. Audrey, outlined via various e-mails and messages with schools, gardeners, and her best friend Soo Lin, marches straight off the cliff of likability, only to be pulled in again near the book’s conclusion for a surprising and well-orchestrated redemption. Audrey, asked by an incredulous Bernadette what had led to such a drastic change in heart, replies simply that it was God who spoke to her, and that she was starting to try and act like a Christian. It is the sort of jarring, character-bending changes that occur throughout the book which keeps a reader on their toes.