27 December, 2013
Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, an endlessly funny romp with surprising depth beneath its surface, is about a genius mother and her daughter in an absurd world.
The good people of Seattle might find something "hinky" about Bernadette Fox, the protagonist in Maria Semple's Where'd You Go Bernadette? As the story opens, Bernadette is a stay-at-home mom, always hiding behind dark glasses. She hates to mingle with the parents at her daughter Bee's private school, refers to the pesky school moms as "gnats," can't stomach how parking in Seattle is an elaborate eight-step procedure – and she detests the five-way intersections the city seems to be full of.
But it turns out there's a reason for Bernadette's general malaise, and it's not just Seattle's incessant rain. Long before the precocious Bee was born with a heart defect (and after five miscarriages), Bernadette and her genius husband, Elgie, lived in sunny Los Angeles where Bernadette was an up-and-coming architect. One of the pioneers of the green building movement, Bernadette stood out as a lone successful woman in a field dominated by men. She was even recognized as a MacArthur genius. Then things suddenly went terribly awry. So when her husband was offered a fantastic job at Microsoft, Bernadette figured she would suspend her career in architecture for a bit, and follow him to Seattle. She hoped to eventually return to Los Angeles to her work. What she didn't expect is that her husband would end up loving his job, that he would become one of the foremost minds at Microsoft and that years later, in Seattle, her once-promising architecture career would be a distant dream.
Back to the present in Seattle, a family trip to Antarctica is in the offing and while Bernadette has made all the necessary arrangements through a virtual assistant in India, she doesn't believe she has the stomach to pull it off. She's worried about the cruise, about the choppy Drake Passage to Antarctica, and about, as Bernadette says, "being trapped with 149 other people who will uniquely annoy the hell out of me with their rudeness, waste, idiotic questions, incessant yammering, creepy food requests, boring small talk, etc. Or worse, they might turn their curiosity toward me, and expect pleasantry in return. I'm getting a panic attack just thinking about it." This panic attack leads to a series of hilarious episodes at the end of which, as the title suggests, Bernadette simply disappears. Where has she gone this time? Will she ever return? Will her daughter Bee manage to find her? In an endlessly funny romp, author Maria Semple has us cheering for both mother and daughter, two strong-willed, intelligent women.
Semple, who has written for television hits like Arrested Development, crafts the novel, narrated mostly by Bee, in a variety of formats – e-mails between two school moms, FBI reports, notes from Bernadette to her mentor, and finally an old-fashioned chase sequence towards the very end. In the hands of a less skilled author, these structure devices might be gimmicky but Semple's writing is so flawless and her tone so pitch-perfect that the format becomes almost invisible. The novel moves at a brisk pace for the most part – the material set in Antarctica sags a bit and you get the feeling that Semple wants to make this portion into a mini travelogue.
What struck me most about this delightful book is that for all its breeziness (and there's plenty of it to move you right along) there's also much that runs deeper beneath the surface. In an article for the New York Times, my favorite columnist Gail Collins, bemoans the diminishment of the term feminism. It's "a word with a glorious history that's rejected by many young people who are staunchly in favor of women's rights," Collins writes, "Maybe, as Dawn Laguens, the executive vice president of Planned Parenthood, suggested at a press conference this week, it's just that young women feel as though they're up to their ears in choices already." Bernadette seems to be of this younger breed. As an architect, she reused materials, showed up with knitting needles and knitted funky things as statements of art. In the novel, when Ellie Sato, a fellow professional talks about Bernadette's achievements in architecture, she remembers this: "That's what drove me so crazy about Bernadette at Princeton. To be one of two women in the whole architecture department, and you spend your time knitting? It was as bad as crying during review. I felt it was important, as a woman, to go toe-to-toe with the men. Any time I tried to talk to Bernadette about this, she had no interest." It is enough to make you wonder: does this MacArthur genius owe it just to herself and to the wonderful Bee to be the outstanding professional she can be, or does she have a larger obligation – to the rest of womanhood as well?
Until we see where the story takes her, we get to delight in Bernadette's marvelous tone. On the one hand, she can skewer the shoddy architecture of Seattle homes: "Everything else is Craftsman. Turn-of-the-century Craftsman, beautifully restored Craftsman, reinterpretation of Craftsman, needs-some-love Craftsman, modern take on Craftsman. It's like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle in a collective trance. You are getting sleepy, when you wake up you will want to live only in a Craftsman house, the year won't matter to you, all that will matter is that the walls will be thick, the windows tiny, the rooms dark, the ceilings low, and it will be poorly situated on the lot." At the same time, she can also explain why the great Seattle artist Dale Chihuly is just too much for her to handle. Bernadette's tone is especially refreshing in a society where positive thinking is over-emphasized. Fellow curmudgeons, who, like Bernadette, don't suffer fools gladly, will just love her. The rest will find her pleasantly amusing. After all, any woman who has her daughter's undying respect deserves our love as well. You begin to realize that in that dreary Seattle landscape, Bee and Bernadette are rays of sunshine – they might not always be of good cheer but they're definitely full of warmth.
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