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Monday, December 31, 2012

Review: 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette'

By Maria Semple
Literary fiction
December 2012
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316256193
WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE could have gone in so many directions. Maria Semple's novel, told from various points of view and in emails, letters and journal entries, starts off in full-blown, glorious snark mode. The parents of a snooty Seattle private school's children have their knickers in a twist over the antics of fish-out-of-water Bernadette. She is a reclusive, misanthropic famed architect and mother of talented prodigy Bee. Dad is a Microsoft muckymuck who has one of the most-viewed TED talks ever.

Bee wants to see Antarctica as a graduation present. Because Bernadette cannot face people, she hires a virtual assistant in India to make the arrangements. Below their house, which is really a rundown former school, Audrey Griffin wants to hold a fundraising party for Bee's school. (Her son also attends.) The goal is to attract the best Mercedes parents, like one of the Pearl Jam band members. It doesn't have to be Eddie Vedder.

Audrey is a gnat to Bernadette. She demands Bernadette remove the rambling blackberry bushes from her yard before the party. The fact that it's winter and the hillside will lose its cover to battle erosion do not occur to Audrey. Then again, she's also the kind of parent who wonders what the principal is doing looking in her son's locker. After all, "don't they have locks on them? Isn't that why they're called lockers?"

Bee's dad, Elgin, is up against a tight deadline at work. His new admin assistant, Soo-Lin, is another prep school gnat, um, parent. Soo-Lin is a divorced single mother who attends Victims Against Victimhood meetings. Complications will, of course, ensue as lives become entangled.

It all gets to be too much for Bee's mother. So she disappears two days before Christmas. And Bee decides to find her. That's when the novel hits its true stride and the reader discovers its deep heart.

As the story begins, the satire and snark are delicious. Semple began the novel after moving to the unknown territory known as Seattle, and to someone who has watched the pretentiousness present in some Emerald City residents from the other side of the Cascades since before Microsoft, Starbucks and grunge rock existed, she is spot on.

But like all great novelists who use various forms of humor, Semple knows when to add layers of emotional depth. Bernadette has good reasons to do what she does, and few of the characters turn out to be as cartoonish as they may appear at first. There is a great set piece of sorts when the novel changes tone, a long letter Bernadette writes to a former colleague about her life as a MacArthur grant-winning architect and the birth of Bee. His response to the letter is nearly the same as the one that Semple received as she adapted to a city she now loves, after Bernadette has poured out her heart for pages:

Are you done? You can't honestly believe any of this nonsense. People like you must create. If you don't create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society."

To see what Bernadette does next is not revealed until the end, and there is far too much tell rather than show in the revealing, but it is still a resolution that rings true emotionally and fits these characters just right.

Best of all, Bee is a delightful creation. A brilliant, intrepid daughter could be too twee a character, but Semple keeps Bee from going too far into that territory. Instead, Bee is a fully realized character who just happens to be the youngest of the main ones in this novel. And, just as Semple handles the various voices who relate the narrative, she also allows more than one main character to have her own journey of discovery.

These are characters worth knowing, and their story is one well worth discovering.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reposted with permission

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