Maria Semple, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”

Here’s what this book had against it from the start: it’s about a crazy mom. She spends a lot of time railing about bourgeois Seattle, not one of my more urgent interests.  And — potentially fatal — the narrative is cobbled together out of different “documents.” But Maria Semple is very clever, and she walks that fine line between skewering society and leaving room for her story to have heart. Will I remember Where’d You Go, Bernadette? in ten years? No. Did it distract me on a plane trip? Yes. Job done.

Local color: Seattle space needle

Local color: Seattle space needle

The premise is that said mom, Bernadette Fox, has vanished. Semple’s cleverness is in not making this at all clear from the get-go. Bit by bit, document by document, you understand who she is (mom, wife of a Microsoft executive, former architect, very irritable lady). The entertainment of the first portion of the book is Semple’s wonderful mimicry of voices in emails, school memos, news clippings, and the narrative from the point of view of her daughter Bee. The best characters, i.e. the most entertaining, are the self-serving Soo-Linn Lee-Segal, a Microsoft administrator, and Audrey Griffin, Bernadette’s lunatic self-righteous neighbor.

Once we get to the heart-warming bit, the fascination wanes somewhat, but by then Semple has us engaged, and this is emphatically a comedy. Some of which takes place in Antarctica, which was a first for me. Extra credit for that.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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