Maria Semple was an LA-based script writer for shows including Ellen, Mad About You and Arrested Development before moving to Seattle and swapping TV writing for novels. In her Women’s Prize For Fiction nominated novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette she brings the humour, the pace and the precision that makes great TV to this warm, funny, charming, clever book. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a joy to read from beginning to end, but for all its humour its far from a light and fluffy read, there’s a (often very funny) darkness that lies just beneath the surface of its fizzy narrative.
The AWOL Bernadette of the title was once a brilliant LA-based architect who fled her job and Los Angeles after a disagreement with an arrogant, smarmy yet wildly successful English TV producer (who could this be possibly based on?) and followed her Microsoft-employed husband Elgie to soggy Seattle, a city she hates with such passion that you know its wormed its way into her affections. In the years since their move, Bernadette has barely left their leaky, crumbling house, a former girls correction centre that was to be her Seattle project.
Much of the humour comes from Bernadette’s scathing view of Seattle. She hates the lakes, the mountains, the rain, the Big Brotherly-ness of Microsoft and the fustiness of the residence. She hates that it’s so near ‘nice’ Canada. One of the highlights is a chapter where Bernadette writes a vicious, hilarious letter to a former colleague pouring sharply funny scornballs all over the city that spawned grunge. But as much as she dislikes the city, she dislikes the idea of leaving it even more. When her daughter Bee, a straight A student, asks for a family trip to Antarctica as her end of year award, Bernadette is horrified. How can a woman who finds leaving the house a bumpy enough ride, navigate the turbulent waters of Drake’s Passage?
But in a bid to escape the mental hospital where her Microsoft absorbed husband Elgie believes is the only place for his wife who, he thinks, runs over school gate mother’s feet and causes mudslides by wilfully pulling out the soil-binding blackberry bushes, she throws herself at the mercy of the world’s most treacherous sea crossing. (To be fair to Elgie, his concerns over her mental health aren’t helped by him finding her asleep in a pharmacy. Oh, and then there’s the FBI investigation).
When Bernadette fails to return from her Antarctic adventure, everyone, expect tenacious Bee thinks she’s dead. The novel is the story of her search for her mother told through a series of letters, emails, police reports, even a (brilliant) transcript of a TED talk on robots given by Elgie. This mish mash of what forms the evidence in Bee’s quest is linked by the fifteen-year-old’s eminently sensible but far from dull narrative. Semple somehow manages to make the complex and unlikely reality of Bee coming to have in her possession everything from letters from the blackberry bush exterminator to two-line postcards between once close friends sound completely plausible. I can’t imagine the kinds of knots she tied herself into writing it.
Bernadette is a rare fictional female. We know she wears big dark sunglasses even in the rain and tames her unruly, Seattle-rain ravaged hair in a jaunty headscarf. We know she’s 50. We know she doesn’t worry about her weight or wrinkles; she’s not in a tortured marriage nor having a messy affair; she’s not beautiful (or at least we’re not told she is), her effect on men is based purely on her architectural achievements and her uncompromising professional personality.
Your opinion on the novel will no doubt be dictated by how much you like Bernadette. I loved her; she was as refreshing as a Seattle shower, as funny and as flawed and a little bit mad as all the best people are. She was kinder than any of the church-going, PTA-attending women at the school gates who sneered at her out-of-town unorthodoxy and, although almost consigned to a mental hospital, saner than most others around her. There are a host of other characters, all borderline caricatures, but with the true comic writer’s touch of injecting them with enough humanity to make them less cartooning and more relatable. But ultimately, this is Bernadette’s journey, and one you’ll have a blast joining her on.
by Suzanne Elliott