Where’d You Go, Bernadette chronicles a Seattle father and daughter’s search for their idiosyncratic and agoraphobic wife/mother Bernadette and the mishaps leading up to her mysterious disappearance. Published in 2012 to critical acclaim, Maria Semple’s novel features a lively cast of characters, including the notorious yet elusive Bernadette who loves her husband but hates the Seattle lifestyle he’s adopted, her health nut Microsoft executive husband Elgin Branch, her intelligent and fiercely loyal daughter Bee, and the pushy Seattle moms whom Bernadette dubs the “Galer Street gnats.”
In this heartwarming and insightful novel, Semple tackles a variety of issues, from a daughter’s indomitable love for her imperfect mother, to the quagmires associated with the 21st century quest for truth, to the value of travel, all while skewering Seattle’s trendy and progressive, yet privileged, sensibility through laugh-out-loud quips and clever satire.
The very format of the novel mirrors the complexity and multiplicity that characterize 21st century epistemology. Crafted from a wide variety of sources—report cards, emails, invoices, bills, letters and teacher’s notes—Semple’s novel acknowledges the difficulties of trying to figure out what’s real and true in the kaleidoscopic modern world in which we live. But, as Bee writes in one of her POV chapters, “Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about a person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.”
And try she does, travelling all the way to the edge of the world in Antarctica to find her mother. For Bernadette, as well as Elgin and Bee, travel is redemptive; only when they go away are they able to return anew to themselves, their flawed family, and their home in Seattle.
While exploring these thought-provoking themes, Semple never fails to make us laugh along the way. Bernadette hilariously satirizes nearly every aspect of Seattle, from the local preoccupation with the perpetually dreary weather—“But every time it rains, and you have to interact with someone, here’s what they’ll say; ‘Can you believe the weather?’ And you want to say, ‘Actually I can believe the weather. What I can’t believe is that I’m actually having a conversation about the weather’”—to her own struggle with anxiety—“Getting into fights with people makes my heart race. Not getting into fights with people makes my heart race. Even sleeping makes my heart race!”
Overall, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a laugh-out-loud, endearing novel that manages to take on tough issues with a tongue placed firmly in cheek, making the novel one definitely worth reading and Maria Semple an author worth keeping an eye (or both) on.