Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is an entertaining, light-hearted novel with a cast of eccentric and quirky characters.
The narrative unfolds through a series of emails, police reports, school announcements, magazine articles, connecting fillers, etc. compiled by Bee, Bernadette’s fifteen-year-old daughter, after her mother’s disappearance. The switching back and forth between the different formats energizes the narrative and gives it a hurried pace. Characters rush in and out; the format changes at dizzying speeds; the Russian Mafia attempts identity theft; the local police and FBI are involved; Bernadette disappears mysteriously; her husband and daughter hunt her down. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This hodge podge of frenzied activities gives the novel almost a slap-stick, fast-paced sitcom quality.
The speed at which the novel moves and the shifting format means there is little time or space for character development. The characters are, in fact, flat caricatures. Elgie, Bernadette’s husband, is a genius at Microsoft. He rides a bike, takes his shoes off when he gets to work, wears headphones to tune people out, and is treated with a mixture of reverence and fear by colleagues. Bernadette is ostensibly a genius as well as a scatterbrain. A former architect and recipient of the MacArthur genius grant, she exhibits anti-social behavior, antagonizes the parents of children at Bee’s school, and shuffles around the house strategically placing pots and pans to catch the rain leaking from the roof. Bee is a precocious fifteen-year-old who thinks it’s perfectly normal to live in a home with weeds pushing their way through broken floor boards, with a mother who is a scatterbrain, and with a father who is virtually absent.
The characters are unrealistic and set up for ridicule. Bernadette’s zany antics are laughable, but at the same time, we are supposed to find her endearing and loveable. She’s not. The only positive quality about her is the unconditional love she has for her daughter. Bee emerges as the most believable character. But considering the serious health issues she had to overcome as a child and her mother’s crazy antics, it’s amazing she isn’t damaged.
Maria Semple knows how to write a light-hearted, entertaining novel that sustains reader interest as she hurtles us from one page to the next. But her characters are parodies, her plot unrealistic, her treatment of weighty subjects superficial, and her conclusion inconclusive.
Recommended with reservations.