Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette is newly out in paperback, and the cover is emblazoned with reasons you should read it, but the one that sold me is actually on the back, in the author’s bio: “Before turning to fiction, [Semple] wrote for Arrested Development.” Book: Sold.
In the same way that Arrested Development was the perfect show for me (offbeat and borderline zany humor, outsize characters, cracking dialogue, elaborate running gags), Where’d You Go, Bernadette is just my kind of book: acerbic characters, heavy doses of sarcasm, unreliable narrators, a little bit of mystery, a mudslide, the Russian mafia, and just enough heart to keep you from hating all the characters.
2012’s other hit book about a Gone Girl, Bernadette is a quasi-mystery novel delving into the second disappearance of Bernadette Fox. She’s already something of a legend following her Kane-like retreat from the architecture business in the late ‘90s to live in a crumbling old mansion in Seattle and be a stay-at-home mom. This time, though, she’s left her family–her husband, an absent-minded Microsoft executive (who gave one of the top five TED Talks of all time!) and genius daughter Bee—and vanished during an ill-fated cruise to Antarctica. Pieced together from journals, letters, emails, interviews, and old magazine articles, the novel explores Bernadette’s past and Bee’s attempts to track her down.
Semple spends the first half of the book skewering Seattle, targeting a lot more than just the weather: Bernadette is laser-focused when something pisses her off, and she takes aim at traffic, Starbucks, the competitive private school culture of “Mercedes parents” and “Suburu parents,” and the weirdly insular culture of Microsoft (in sections heavily reminiscent of Douglas Coupland’s definitive narrative on the subject, 1995’s Microserfs). But even as Bernadette’s slapstick battles with the head of the PTA are played for laughs, it’s pretty clear that all is not well in her world: she’s absent-minded, cares for her daughter only distractedly, and has turned most of her life over to “Manjula,” a woman in India she pays pennies per hour to do everything from making doctor’s appointments to dinner reservations to obtaining passports for the cruise to Antarctica she promised she promised Bee if she got all As on her report card.
As things get progressively worse for Bernadette’s mental state, the book gets weirder. FBI agents swam Seattle, houses are buried in mudslides, and the Russian mafia comes calling. By the end, you might be throwing around words like “madcap” and “caper,” which is pretty easy once there are penguins involved. But through it all, Semple grounds the story in the heartfelt relationship between Bernadette and Bee (think of them as the book’s Michael and George Michael). As wacky as it gets, it’s really a story about figuring out the things that matter in life, and going out and finding them.
Even if you have to go all the way to Antarctica. Where there are penguins.