Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Maria Semple: "Where’d You Go, Bernadette"

Smart, sweet, and funny, 
Bernadette captures the zeitgeist 
of 40-somethings and their children

Maria Semple
     Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a big deal in 2012, but the capsule descriptions I read sounded sort of shallow.  Plus, it was being compared to Gone Girl, which didn’t make much sense since it was described as comic.  Maria Semple was
one of the big draws at Books on the Banks this past fall.  (However, a famous fiction writer still doesn’t receive the attention of a non-fiction writer with some junky bestseller).  I asked Leah Stewart, while she was signing books, which authors she was excited about at the event and she said Maria Semple and someone else whose name went out of my head the moment after I heard it.  I went over to Semple’s booth.  She was pleasant yet edgy, as if she didn’t want to jabber the nicey-nicey stuff while some ‘name’ faced an extensive line (usually it’s a children’s author or a decorator or cookbook writer), but I was glad someone of her caliber would show up.

     I took a while to consider reading the book because I didn’t care for the cover (I know, I know, so shallow), but I finally read it.  And I read it in two days, which is remarkably fast for me.  It helped that we had a snow day.  It’s a hilarious comedy of manners, set significantly in Seattle, where she lives.  Yes, it’s not giving away too much to say Bernadette disappears, but it’s towards the end and I thought it was about a mix-up.  It’s not like the black horror comedy of Flynn’s classic that refers to the economic meltdown, but Semple suggests some devastating discussion about whether the 1990s were better than the 2010s.

Working at Microsoft
     Semple cleverly reinvents the epistolary novel by utilizing emails as her literary building block and supplementing it with narrative by Bee, Bernadette’s teenage daughter, whose request to visit Antarctica as a treat for her grades sets the plot in motion.  Bernadette’s husband Elgie is one of the geniuses at Microsoft.  Semple pokes great fun at the progressive, team culture of that economic behemoth, the insularity of lifelong residents of second tier cities (anything after NY, LA, or Chicago), and the desperate bonhomie of the entitled professional class as its members grapple with a sense of dashed dreams and envy.  However, and this is where I don’t think Semple is a satirist, she allows all of her characters their due and the chance to change for the better.  

     Bernadette and Bee jump off the page, sort of like the mother and daughter in Mona Simpson’s wonderful novel Anywhere But Here (1987) (not the truncated, one and a half note movie version).   Bernadette becomes more complex as the story continues and her motives make more emotional sense the more she is revealed.  She’s sacrificed for her family or so it seems.  I don’t want to reveal too much.  Her nemesis is Audrey – upbeat, energetic, and desperate for acclaim.  We’ve all had an Audrey in our lives and woe betide anyone who doesn’t take such a person seriously or look beneath her veneer and examine her motives.  

     The story is resolved more neatly than I would have liked.  What seemed like a tragic decision turns out to be based on a miscommunication and a note that isn’t delivered in a timely manner.  The characters come to their senses and a new horizon dawns towards a more positive life.  Basically, it’s a classic comedy set up and resolution.  However, don’t take that as a diminution of a terrific family comedy and a keen observation of what the women of Generation X want and need in middle age.

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