In Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the titular character is a middle-aged wife of a very successful tech superstar and mother of a witty teenage daughter. The novel is set in flourishing Seattle among TED talkers and Microsoft workers. But Bernadette can’t stand it there. Hidden behind large sunglasses on her face and scarves on her head, Bernadette avoids the other parents of her daughter’s prestigious private school like the plague. She quite fittingly calls them gnats. Soon life for Bernadette begins to spiral out of control and before long the plot aims to answer the title question – where did Bernadette go?
Author Maria Semple, a former writer of Arrested Development, delivers this smart satire of modern life set in the hometown of one of the world’s largest tech giants. Told from the perspective of her daughter, this slice of Bernadette’s life is told through private emails, notes, school documents, and even FBI reports. She has run-ins with a cast of lively characters including her overbearing and spiteful neighbor Audrey who is oblivious to the deep issues troubling her own family. Audrey has a fascination with Bernadette, who from her perspective is the woman who lives on top of the hill, never involves herself in school functions, and is married to the man who gave the fourth-most-watched TED talk ever.
Before diving into Where’d You Go, Bernadette, it is unclear where the story could be going. Before long, I was tearing “through this book with heedless pleasure” as Jonathan Franzen states on the book’s cover. That should tell you something, considering Mr. Franzen is a quite a tough critic himself. At the heart of this story is the relationship between a mother and her daughter Bee. “I can pinpoint that as the single happiest moment of my life,” Bee narrates at one point. “Because I realized then that Mom would always have my back. It made me feel giant. I raced back down the concrete ramp, faster than I ever had before, so fast I should have fallen, but I didn’t fall, because Mom was in the world.”
We learn about Bernadette’s fascinating past and discover how she ended up in a crumbling home on top of a muddy hill in Washington State. This funny and heartfelt novel has it all: love, mystery, infidelity, and humor. The complications of human life are on full display and examined with absurdity.