Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Hunting for mom in all the funny places
Aprecocious teen tracks down her missing mother in this light and lively comic story, the second novel from Seattle-based writer Maria Semple.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette is funny, often LOL funny, as you might expect from a former TV scribe who worked on Arrested Development. But Semple also manages to make some warm, wise points about motherhood, marriage and the modern see-saw of family and work.
The titular Bernadette eventually goes AWOL in Antarctica, but she has been emotionally running from a mysterious event she calls the "Huge Hideous Thing" for some time.
Years ago in Los Angeles, Bernadette was an uncompromising genius. And we mean an official genius -- she received a MacArthur Genius Grant for her revolutionary work in architecture.
Now's she just an uncompromising crank, a virtual recluse who lives in Seattle with her adoring 15-year-old daughter, Bee, and her loving but confused husband, Elgie, who works as a tech demigod at Microsoft.
As their huge, decrepit family home heaves and moulders in the Seattle rain, Bernadette outsources her whole life to a personal assistant in India. The correspondence between Bernadette and Manjula Kapoor is a comic duet between unthinking North American excess and restrained Indian politeness.
Bernadette rages about minor irritations, her rants giving Semple plenty of comic scope to satirically skewer Seattle's bastions of earnest, politically correct privilege.
Here people hire "blackberry abatement specialists" for their backyards and pack their grocery bags with artisanal cheeses and organic strawberries.
They share their feelings in Victims Against Victimhood support groups and send their children to a private school that is currently hoping to trade up from "Subaru Parents" to "Mercedes Parents." ("The choice of private schools is both fear-based and aspirational," writes a consultant hired by the school in his hilarious motivational memo.)
Where'd You Go, Bernadette is constructed as a very postmodern epistolary novel. Semple mixes in a few old-school letters with emails, police reports, magazine interviews, live blogging and even IM exchanges.
The documentation is held together with some direct narration from Bee, a typical "wise child" character with a viewpoint beyond her years.
At times the novel seems to veer toward a common and cheap literary conceit -- that the novel's protagonists, while dwelling among the middle classes, are fabulously quirky, while all the other characters are odious bourgeois idiots.
Fortunately, Semple has an appealing way of reversing expectations, and even characters who seem like awful comic caricatures turn out to have hidden layers.
By the end of novel -- set rather dramatically against the austere emptiness of the Antarctic -- we've learned much more about a flawed, funny, affectionate mother-daughter relationship.
And somewhere in the middle of Bernadette's long vanishing act, Semple even manages to express what could be the mantra for 21st-century parenting: "I love you," Bernadette says to Bee. "I'm trying. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't."
Winnipeg pop culture writer Alison Gillmor is a Honda Parent.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette
By Maria Semple
Little, Brown, 336 pages, $29
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 J8
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