Monday, November 4, 2013
Lost and Found: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?
Unlike much of the adult fiction I selected over the past few months, I knew relatively nothing about Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I read a John Green interview after I reread his book The Fault in Our Stars in which he named Semple's book his favorite of the year so far. Semple wrote for Saturday Night Live and for Arrested Development, and Where'd You Go, Bernadette was touted as a one of the year's best books, with glittering praise for the comedic writing and spot on satire from every major news outlet from the New York Times to Vogue.
I chose this book for my Book Club because I needed a change of pace. Where'd You Go, Bernadette certainly offered something different. The story revolves around a family living in Seattle - Bernadette Fox, a brilliant architect from Los Angeles whose distaste for the Seattle inhabitants and lifestyle pushed her over the edge and made her a recluse in her run down home; Elgin Branch, Bernadette's genius Microsoft inventor husband who received national recognition for his top rated TedTalk on Samantha 2; and the narrator of the story, Bee, Bernadette and Elgin's gifted 15 year old daughter who attends Galer Street school and asks for a trip to Antarctica for receiving perfect grades.
The story unfolds in a series of letters, faxes, medical reports, interviews, and emails. The biting satire about families, overzealous Suburban moms, creativity, and the artistic temperament highlight the mystery of what really happened to Bernadette, but brings up the broader question - what happens to all of us as we age, compromise our beliefs, raise our families, recover from illnesses and loss, and try to navigate the world and find out what we can really tolerate.
I loved Semple's style and found myself flying through the narrative. I especially loved the character Audrey Griffin and her flawed rivalry with Bernadette. Audrey's letters about blackberry bush removal, parent involvement at Galer Street School, and her unhinging at the Westin Hotel where she realizes how out of touch with her reality she really is parallels Bernadette's unhinging and circle to eventual restoration. The way the story unfolds made me appreciate Semple's brilliance - the truths keep coming in bursts of light through the various clues Bee recovers about her mother's disappearance.
I never laughed aloud as I read the way that I do when I read David Sedaris, but the fresh originality of the dysfunctional world of Bernadette, her husband, and her daughter showed human truths in a way that didn't feel awful and sad. Yes, there are sad aspects to the book, but all the sadness is tempered with Semple's comedic edge, and the wit led me to smile rather than frown.