Suburban Subversion, Perfected: Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette

09/26/2012 4:00 AM |

Where’d You Go, Bernadette
By Maria Semple

(Little Brown and Co.)

Though the title character is an agoraphobic, paranoid and manic middle-aged housewife who gets entangled in an FBI identity-theft investigation shortly before she vanishes, this novel is surprisingly grounded in reality. Bernadette Fox, once the most promising architect in the country (and recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant”), is now a menace to society. A professional humiliation forced her to flee Los Angeles for Seattle, where she’s loved by her husband Elgen, a Microsoft bigwig; idolized by her teenage daughter Bee; and hated by fellow moms, especially her neighbor, Audrey, and Elgen’s assistant Soo-Lin. Bernadette has cut off all ties to human interaction except for a virtual assistant she’s hired from India, Manjula, whom she pays 75 cents an hour to do tasks as simple as buy groceries and book the family trip to Antarctica. Just before the trip, though, a series of disastrous mishaps and erratic behavior convince Elgen he must have Bernadette committed. And then she disappears.

Semple’s background in television and comedy (including credits on Arrested Development) provide the foundation for this subversively funny novel and its all-too-rare blend of humor and heart. But the real ingenuity lies in telling the story through Bee, who has curated every bit of correspondence leading up to her mother’s disappearance; the majority of the story is told via emails, faxes, memos, letters, articles, police reports, ship manifestos and even her father’s TED Talk. That unconventional approach envelops us in this fishbowl world of wealth and privilege, and provides direct insight into each character’s psyche, especially Bernadette’s. By the end, the novel becomes more than a suburban black comedy or gumshoe detective story—it’s a powerful mosaic of mental illness, artistic temperament, and family melodrama. In a time when everything is a version of something else, how extraordinary—and exciting—to read a novel that sub-verts conventions to create an experience that feels so fresh.