“Bernadette has obviously made a choice to get lost, and it seems to me we should respect it.” While her confidante and professor Paul Jellinek would be happy to let the whereabouts of the eccentric and disturbed genius remain unknown, Bernadette’s 15-year-old daughter Bee is dead-set on getting to the bottom of the question the book’s title asks. Telling an epistolary tale with a modern twist, Maria Semple traces the events before Bernadette’s disappearance through a compilation of emails, handwritten letters, blog transcripts, FBI documents and even a psychiatrist’s report. Such an untraditional format runs the risk of becoming fragmented, inconsistent and difficult to follow. However, Semple composes the events tightly, embellishing them with the occasional comment from the precocious narrator Bee, and the result is a mystery that unfolds almost like a detective novel.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette revolves around the “most influential architect you’ve never heard of,” with borderline agoraphobia and an ego so wounded that she moves from Los Angeles to Seattle, a city she nurses seething resentment towards. Meanwhile, Bee is a straight-S student (‘surpasses excellence’) who asks for a family trip to Antarctica as a middle-school graduation present. A day before their departure, Bernadette vanishes.
She chooses a loner’s life which leads to several comical episodes in the story such as her propping up a massive billboard warning ‘gnats’ to stay off her property. ‘Gnats’ is how Bernadette refers to helicopter parents she encounters at Bee’s school. These gnats, in turn, have nothing but disdain for Bernadette’s apparent lack of ‘belief’ in community.
Bernadette outsources all her errands to a virtual assistant halfway across the world and treats her like nothing less than a therapist. Her instructions to Manjula Kapoor of Delhi Virtual Assistants International are almost always lost amidst details of Bernadette’s many dissatisfactions with life (no wonder she calls her correspondence with the assistant a romance). This leads the reader to wonder about communication in our highly inter-connected world. Where’d You Go, Bernadette pays a great tribute to the number of portals we have to facilitate communication. But is anyone really saying or hearing what they want? Bernadette’s husband, Elgie, famous for his Ted talk, composes an emotional letter to a psychiatrist confessing that he “fears [his] wife is very sick.” Her response is politically correct and professional to the point of curt. Bernadette’s lengthy cathartic message for Paul is met with a laconic reply, bordering on impatience.
Similarly, another family on Galer Street is in trouble with Audrey Griffin’s staunch denial of the fact that her doted-on son deals drugs and her husband has an alcohol problem even though it’s all happening under her nose. Thus, Semple does a fantastic job of conveying the inherent miscommunication that seems characteristic of our world today.
Semple is also very crafty with her depiction of a prodigy who meets her downfall all too quickly. Winner of the MacArthur Grant, Bernadette summarises the root cause of her problem with the quiet confession that “failure has bit me hard and it won’t stop shaking.” She understands how people of her exemplary talent must be treated, as shown by her scathing indictment of Canadians for not understanding that “some people are extraordinary and should be treated as such.” Perhaps this is Semple’s way of prescribing a solution to all the characters in her novel in adjusting their attitude towards the “rude and anti-social” Bernadette.
Creation and destruction become important motifs in the book with Semple’s choice of Bernadette’s area of genius, ie architecture, a profession dedicated to the physical construction of ideas. However, Bernadette is not so successful with the ultimate process of creation, that of building another human. Suffering from multiple miscarriages, Bee is a miracle baby albeit with a congenital heart defect. It is interesting how fitting Paul’s diagnosis is when he tells Bernadette she must create because when people like her don’t, they “become a menace to society.” And so she does, except this time the focus of her attention is her daughter. To ‘be(e)’ is to exist, so Semple’s choice of name for her narrator becomes all the more engaging.
Deeper and darker themes are at play in the novel but Semple’s achievement lies in her ability to make us laugh all the way through it. Whether it is hilarious typos resulting from a malfunctioning keyboard or sarcastic remarks about a school finding “traditional grades” bad for self-esteem, we never truly lower ourselves to the emotional depth that some of her ideas introduce. The only time we feel pangs is when pent-up aggression arrests Bee’s heart towards her father, who seemingly cannot share her certainty that her mother would never do anything that “would mean she might never see me again.” Perhaps we can credit Semple’s history as a writer for the hit sitcoms Arrested Development and Mad About You for being able to ease the bleakness of her narrative with light yet well-rounded characters alongside vivacious and humourous language.
The tightly woven plot culminates in a wild goose chase down to the South Pole, depicting not only the lengths a daughter would go to find her mother but also the absurd (we encounter penguins and the Russian mafia). However, the simple and straightforward language is such that the reader cannot help but be amused while simultaneously foregoing scepticism to enjoy the novel’s many-tiered lessons.
A comical, heart-warming read, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is quick to get through and as Bee surmises, “no matter what people say about Mom now, she sure knew how to make life interesting.”