Book review: 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' sends up Seattle self-absorption and first-world angst
Maria Semple -- Explores the price of loving a genius.
"Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" by Maria Semple.
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Should normal standards of politeness, parenting, and personal hygiene be suspended for geniuses? And who decides?
In former TV writer Maria Semple's new novel, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette," the central character is Bernadette Fox, a once-promising architect. Early in her career, one of only two buildings she ever designed is judged so remarkable it earns her simultaneously a MacArthur Genius Grant and the hostility of the Los Angeles next-door neighbor, who secretly buys it and tears it down.
Little, Brown ($25.99).
Bernadette is as destroyed as her masterpiece. She and husband Elgie move to Seattle, where Elgie earns an enormous salary at his beloved Microsoft when he's not delivering the "fourth most-watched TEDTalk." Their daughter, Bee (short for Balakrishna), grows into a smart and generous tutor of younger classmates. Bee is one precocious eighth-grader, as we learn from a peek at her Choate boarding school acceptance letter. (If you've never heard of Choate, TEDTalks or, God forbid, Balakrishna, these characters' problems may not resonate with you.)
Bernadette spends her days avoiding her maids and gardeners to shop on the Internet from the backyard Airstream trailer Bee calls the Petit Trianon after Marie Antoinette's Versailles getaway. Bernadette also tries, not very hard, to stop ranting at all things Seattle: vagrants, Alaskans, drivers, five-way intersections, Canada, Christians, the "gnats" in the PTA at Bee's school, the entire state of Idaho, and anyone provincial enough to think Seattle's scenery could frame a satisfying life. Another thing Bernadette fails to do is ... work. The emailed verdict of a former professor is prescient: "If you don't create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society."
Bee's parents once promised her a family trip to Antarctica if she got all A's in middle school. She does, Mom and Dad ante up, (although Mom hates to travel out of the driveway), and Bernadette launches into an orgy of online shopping to prepare. She's helped by her virtual Indian assistant, hired without Elgie's knowledge for 75 cents an hour. Using the family credit cards, Manjula purchases what sounds like half the inventory of REI. Unlimited spending is not the picnic you might think.
At one point Bernadette tells her daughter, "I need you to know how hard it is for me sometimes."
Not unnaturally, Bee asks, "What's hard?"
"The banality of life," her mother says. "But it won't keep me from taking you to the South Pole."
Before that, though, Bernadette gets in a feud with a school parent whose house she destroys; Elgie's secretary falls in love with him; and the FBI shows up to say that "Manjula" is not who she claims to be. We watch disaster unfold via the affected parties' emails, texts and faxes. Finally, attention is being paid to Bernadette's crippling misanthropy, but she won't stick around long enough to say thanks. She vanishes. The adoring Bee persuades her father to help her seek Bernadette to the ends of the Earth: Antarctica.
Many things in this story end happily enough. Yes, a few lives and careers are wrecked. (Elgie's affair with his secretary felt too dark for this plot.) But that's the price of loving a genius, the author seems to say. Worth every embarrassment and heartache.
Although they might be beguiled by the comic lines and the fast-paced events that reflect the author's TV experience, some readers may disagree with that conclusion. Ms. Semple attempts to balance her character's abrasiveness with self-awareness. Bernadette apologizes for failing Bee as a parent, admits numerous times that she doesn't "do well" with people, etc. But it's too little, too late. Witty, yes, but this woman is monolithically selfish, self-pitying and judgmental.
During her 20-year sulk, Bernadette so pointlessly squanders her talent -- without the excuse of true insanity -- that her perverseness outweighs the book's humor. Ms. Semple's writing is deft but not enough to make this fact funny. Even grown-ups without their own Wikipedia page grasp the need for compromise, if only to earn their keep.
Being forced to earn her keep might have helped Bernadette get over her creative slump without an Antarctic cruise and its collateral damage. This epiphany could make "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" a constructive read for those convinced they're too brilliant for this world. But then again, maybe not.
First Published August 12, 2012 12:00 am