A comedy in letters – ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ by Maria Semple

6 Oct

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the second novel by American author Maria Semple, who has worked as a writer for TV comedies such as Saturday Night Live and Arrested Development. I don’t watch the box much, but if the writing in this book is anything to go by, maybe I should. Yes, I’ve become an instant fan of Semple’s work.

Bernadette Fox is a reclusive genius, an architect who hasn’t worked for many years. She lives with her teenage daughter Bee and her husband Elgie in a rundown mansion in Seattle. While Bee, a gifted child, attends the local Steiner-type school, Bernadette makes enemies by refusing to volunteer. ‘So neither of you believe in community?’ one of the mothers asks her. ‘I don’t know if community is something you do or don’t believe in,’ Bernadette replies.

Elgie is a Microsoft superstar. They hung a poster of him from the building after his talk at a technology powwow was an internet sensation. Semple’s take on the Microsoft culture in the town is very funny. Conversations with MS (as they say) employees end in one of two ways – with paranoia and suspicion, or in gobbledegook tech speak, ‘My team is working on an end-user, C Sharp interface for HTML 5…’

Meanwhile Bernadette becomes involved in a feud, resulting in a mud-slide into her neighbour’s house during a high-profile ‘Mercedes parent’ brunch. Trying to keep her life in order, Bernadette hires a virtual assistant from Delhi. But then, as things start to go terribly wrong, she vanishes while on a voyage to Antarctica.

Bernadette is an epistolary novel – a collection of emails, letters and blog posts tied together with narrative from Bee as she searches for her mother. This could have been a hodge podge, but instead keeps the story lively and allows for the kind of gaps in the tale that the reader can enjoy filling in.

One of the things I especially liked was that the protagonist was a feisty, individualistic, fifty-year-old woman. There aren’t enough of them in fiction, I say. As well as being hilarious, the story is poignant, raising questions about the effect that squandering their talent has on women. The bond between mother and daughter is also lovely. I intend to hunt down Semple’s previous novel, This One is Mine, as soon as possible.

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