A review of Maria Semple’s novel "Where’d you go, Bernadette"
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical
“On or about December, 1910, human character changed forever. I’m not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless. . . .” ~Virginia Woolf, from Mr. and Mrs. Brown
Virginia Woolf was a clever lady. If in post-WWI London she could discern, with such a careful eye, the subtle shifts of attitude that heralded modernity, one can only imagine what she’d see if she looked at us now, still stumbling through the early years of an adolescent century. Would she see a world beguiled with its own technology? A culture adrift on a digital cloud? No doubt. But I suspect she would see more, too, would penetrate the hard shell of digital hardware and notice that, fundamentally, what has changed is the nature of genius.
And like Maria Semple, she might very well blame Seattle. Maria Semple is no stranger to comedy. Her television writing credits include the well-received Mad About You and Ellen, and the critical darling Arrested Development. A thematic compatriot of all three, Where’d You Go, Bernadette exhibits the same sort of quirky and irreverent but ultimately endearing humor. Nevertheless, Bernadette has some bigger fish to fry than does the typical really smart people cope with a world that’s big enough for McMansions and MMORPGs, but too small for real creativity.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette takes us straight into the Emerald City, from the pretentious Queen Anne Hill, where under the immense weight of conventionality “you will want to live only in a Craftsman,”to the campus of “Big Brother”–aka Microsoft–that mecca of innovation, where designers are “swallowed whole” and top-secret projects are known only by their annoying fem-bot nicknames. There, we meet a family of extraordinaires: Elgin Branch, Microsoft VP and inventor; Bernadette Fox, ground-breaking architect and former MacArthur Award recipient; and their daughter, Bee, whose particular brand of genius comes in the form of having survived six open-heart surgeries before the age of five.
As now 14-year-old Bee reminds us early on, genius is a dogged, persistent beast in the modern world: “I’m totally fine now, and have been for nine and a half years. Just take a time-out and ponder that. For twothirds of my life I’ve been totally normal.”
“Normal” is difficult to achieve in Bee’s Seattle, where children who attend private schools dedicated to “compassion, academics, and global connectitude” can only sink so far toward mediocrity as to earn a grade of “W”–“working toward excellence.” Bee is perfectly happy to have her genius put on hold, or even forgotten.
As another, more nuanced example of genius put on hold, Semple offers up Bernadette, Bee’s brilliant but anti-social mother. Bernadette’s architectural career took a sudden and shocking turn that must wait half the novel to be explained, so she has followed her husband to Seattle where she spends the bulk of her time shut away in an old trailer conversing with a virtual assistant in India while he’s wowing the world and YouTube, Sir Ken Robinsonstyle, with the fourth-most-watched TED talk ever. When Bernadette does emerge into the sun (and there’s not that much of that in Seattle) she never fails to annoy her overly energetic neighbor, Audrey Griffin, by refusing to participate in the PTA.
When events transpire leading to Bernadette’s mysterious disappearance, Bee goes on a hunt to find her mother, a hunt that takes her, literally, to the ends of the earth. At the core of the novel’s satire lies the antagonism between Bernadette and Audrey, which Semple plays for a number of good laughs (the most amusing of which involves an unfortunate incident with some blackberry bushes, a roomful of kindergartners, and a mudslide). To Bernadette, Audrey represents all there is to hate about Seattle suburban life, and to Audrey, Bernadette is the epitome of privileged self-indulgence.
Despite occasional moments of touching humor, this tired competing neighbors routine is far too clichéd to transcend slapstick and approach real parody. It just never seems to climb beyond cuteness, and is obviously going to be unraveled in some twist-y way at an opportune moment in the plot.
Semple far more deftly wades into Bill Gates country, taking a knife to the now iconic images and myths that mark our culture of digital innovation. It’s about time someone had the courage to mock TED, the conference that makes innovation synonymous with standing on stage talking smart and funny for all of twenty minutes, preferably with a few electronic gadgets taped to one’s body. Thus amid all the cute humor, the novel raises an important question that betrays, as Ms. Woolf might say, the shift in human character: do our innovations make people extraordinary, or is it merely the representation of the novelty, the viral nature of the rhetoric, that seems to define genius?
To that end, the novel is presented as a series of documents–emails, notes, records, letters, newspaper articles, medical reports–collected by Bee and assembled, presumably, as a means of investigating her mother’s disappearance (although we later find out there’s more to this collection than meets the eye). These fragments of the characters’ digital selves seem to have a life of their own, and in them the characters often grow to almost absurd proportions. It’s no wonder Bee would rather not be known as the little girl who should have died; it’s hard to live when you’re constantly competing with your own genius.
That said, the novel never really lets its genius characters off the hook. Their antisocial behavior, escapist tendencies, and refusal to play with the lesser beings of the neighborhood (i.e. the rest of us) are fun to watch and to sympathize with–which of us hasn’t smirked at the sycophantic admin’s groupee-lust for the boss? but it can’t last forever, at least not without imploding. The single greatest line of the novel is a one-sentence treatise on the artistic temperament: “people like you must create. If you don’t create […] you’ll become a menace to society.”
At the end of every comedy, there’s a return to normalcy following the chaos that has ensued. Relationships are reestablished and renewed. In the novel, Bernadette is eventually found, and her genius put back to work. Bee is allowed to actually be “normal.” But Semple leaves a few loose threads still drifting out there in the wind in a way that tends to make the story feel incomplete, as if this were a sitcom that was unceremoniously canceled.
Where’d You Go Bernadette is a delightful book, but you’re not likely to close the back cover and think it the most significant novel you read this year. Its textual life may be rather short, however. The movie rights have been optioned, and early reports suggest a 2015 release. I suspect it will make an even more delightful film, so I’m eagerly waiting the day I can go in search of Bernadette all over again.
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