“She Didn’t Get Along With Most People”: Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”

whered-you-go-bernadetteI didn’t quite know how to take Where’d You Go Bernadette, Maria Semple’s second and Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel. On the one hand, it presents as a zany comedy befitting the pen of an erstwhile member of the Arrested Development writing staff, all kooky characters and unlikely farce. On the other, it’s a novel about long-term depression and the creative impulse, which sidles up embarrassingly closely to its Women’s Prize competitor, the lengthy but well-crafted May We be Forgiven. Perhaps reading these two novels back-to-back didn’t help, but Where’d You Go Bernadette felt slight, undercooked and confused.

When we first meet Bernadette Fox, she is a borderline-agoraphobic stay-at-home mom, lurking in a crumbling old mansion on a plush street of otherwise politely contemporary homes in her adopted city of Seattle. We peer at her through an accretion of documents – emails, hand-written notes, an expanding list of ever more unlikely paraphenalia – which are curated and connected by Bee, Bernadette’s precocious teenage daughter. About to be shipped off to boarding school by her own volition, Bee is attempting to understand what we come quickly to discover is her mother’s disappearance, by piecing together the weeks leading up to it, the uneasy marriage of her parents (her father, Elgie, is a big noise at Microsoft, the star of the fourth most-watched TED talk ever), and the petty politics of her middling prep school, Galer Street.

Bee is as unlikely a narrator as her fifty-something mother is an unlikely former genius architect and recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award, but thus we learn she is and was. The frustrations of Seattle life, the regrets of an artistic life abandoned, and the difficulties of a marriage in which communication has become dangerously combustible, lead to a series of misunderstandings that culminate in Bernadette feeling she has no other option but to abscond without notifying anyone of her intended whereabouts. Both on the novel’s cover and in the course of its pages, Bernadette is painted in a whimsical fashion – “She wore dark glasses, trousers and loafers, a men’s shirt with silver cuff links, and some kind of vest underneath her raincoat” [pg. 65] – but in truth she is deeply unhappy, constantly projecting her own neuroses onto the perceived deficiencies of Seattle, “the U.S. city with more millionaires per capita than any other [but] overtaken by bums”; “There are two hairstyles here,” Bernadette gripes: “short gray hair and long gray hair.” [pp. 124-5]

Bernadette’s bitterness is, as you may gather, of a particularly petty kind, and her greatest architectural achievement, the MacArthur-winning house in Los Angeles constructed entirely of material sourced from within a twenty-mile radius, was demolished by a neighbour as part of an ongoing feud over a parking space. This event is seen by Bernadette, and eventually everyone else, as the beginning of her spiral into Seattle-bound depression, ensconced in a house she cannot bring herself to improve; but her objection to her neighbour in LA, and later to her neighbours in Seattle, “had,” according to her erstwhile architectural mentor, “nothing to do with architecture” [pg. 112]: that is, Bernadette dresses up her contempt for those around her as based on art and aesthetics (she dresses as she does in protest at everyone else’s terrible fashion sense), but infact rests upon her own assumption – and simultaneous denial of – privilege.

Semple foregrounds this tension: in an email to the Indian personal assistant whom she pays 75 cents an hour to arrange her life so she does not have to, Bernadette asks, “You know what it’s like when you go to Ikea and you can’t believe how cheap everything is […] Of course you don’t” [pg. 23].   And yet the novel’s curious coda, in which the epistolary form is abandoned as Bee joins her father in the search for good old, crazy Bernadette – who has, bear with me here, escaped to a scientific research outpost in the Antarctic – does not disabuse her of this privilege, but simply allows her to learn to live with it. “Do you know how absolutely exotic it is that you haven’t been corrupted by fashion and pop culture?” she asks Bee rhetorically [pg. 320].  Likewise, the novel spends a good amount of time lampooning Bernadette’s Galer Street nemesis, the pushy and pretentious parent of a drug-pushing tearaway (“Today at Whole Foods, a woman I didn’t even recognize recognized me and said she was looking forward to my brunch” [pg. 45]); and yet Semple ultimately turns around our first impressions in an authorly about-face (“Angela Griffin is an angel,” Bernadette writes [pg. 306]. Semple’s message seems to be: hey, rich people aren’t so bad! It’s good to know this novel is here to defend the upper middle class. (Incidentally, there is only one non-white character in the novel, an Asian-American woman over whom all the characters agonise when Bee compares her to Yoko Ono.)

Where’d You Go, Bernadette isn’t without its charms: it is fiendishly well-constructed, its various documents casting light on each other in a way which is impossible to criticise except on the grounds of improbable perfection. The dialogue, as one might expect of a former writer for television, is zingy if occasionally over-cute. And there are, inevitably, moments which raise a smile and even an out-loud laugh. But all of this has the air of contrivance, of the unreal. There’s a terrible sequence in which Bee listens to Abbey Road – an album released in 1969 which is nevertheless this mid-teen’s very favourite record – and pieces together the studio history of its famous second-side medley. “That [final] instrumental was also constructed by Paul in the studio after the fact, so it’s just a bunch of fake sentimentality,” she concludes, refusing to change her opinion of the record but accepting its essential phoniness [pg. 77]. The passage, with spaded-on irony, reads not at all like the musicology of an enthusiastic adolescent, and more like a plea for the novel in which it appears.

There’s a tiresomeness, then, not just about Bernadette’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it entitlement – “If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society,” she is exhorted [pg. 133] – but about the manner in which the novel goes about examining it. We are routinely delivered the canards that Bernadette has something against community, and that she and others in the novel are practising reality avoidance (Elgie’s big project is a device which enables someone to lie on their coach and bring a bowl of popcorn to themselves via telekinesis); the finale of the novel, however, in which Bee’s voice becomes almost indistinguishable from her mother’s – she experiences the same seasickness as Bernadette, develops the same sniffy misanthropy – feels like a blissful collapse back into not a real wider awareness – “When your eyes are focused on the horizon for sustained periods, your brain releases endorphins,” says Elgie optimistically [pg. 287] – but back into the cosy Seattle club Bernadette begins the novel despising but with which she secretly shares her snobberies (Bee doesn’t go to boarding school, but does get into the Seattle-based dream school). It’s a disappointment that the moral of Where’d You Go, Bernadette is just to despise snobbery less (“we need to start living like normal people”, whatever normal is [pg. 319]), rather than to treat those two impostors just the same.

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2 thoughts on ““She Didn’t Get Along With Most People”: Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”

  1. It’s interesting: I keep hearing such conflicting reports on this book. Not just on whether it’s any good, but on what it’s actually about. The judges in the Tournament of Books made it sound like its focus was on the precocious narrator (which turned me off). Jessa Crispin’s review paints a much more interesting picture of a story about creativity and its limitations. And now your review focuses on the social aspect and leaves me dubious again. I guess I’ll just have to read it now.

    (By the way, I know it didn’t make the shortlist, but having read it I’m now quite curious to know what your reaction to Gone Girl would be. It’s not high art by any stretch, but it’s a quick, fun read.)

    • I wouldn’t say the focus is on Bee, so much as she is the prism through which the events of the novel are seen; on the other hand, I’d agree that creativity and its limitations might well be what the novel imagines itself to be about. Where I think it comes unstuck is, as you say, in its social aspect – and that’s why I emphasised that element above. Unlike the eventual winner of the prize, May We Be Forgiven, it felt very much as if Where’d You Go Bernadette had a set of assumptions which it didn’t seek to challenge, much less break down, and became about a very particular type of creativity and a very narrow set of ‘limitations’. I’d be interested in your thoughts, if that pushes any further towards reading it.

      (And OK, we’ve just done a to-be-read swap.)

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