Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Maria Semple’s second novel, Where’d You Go Bernadette, is both a witty satire on modern life and a suspense story about a brilliant architect descending into a near nervous breakdown. The novel extols the benefits of creative work and close relationships over the flashy promises and fast living of our technologically obsessed modern world.
Maria Semple has 15 years experience working as a television comedy writer for such shows as Ellen and Saturday Night Live. Happily these skills are evident in her second novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Semple plots many twists and turns in a complex story without making it seem contrived. The pacing and timing flow naturally, with lots of brilliant observations and acerbic humour thrown in along the way. While you could broadly slot this novel into the humour genre, it also has a suspenseful plot that builds and builds as the main character, Bernadette, descends into a mental breakdown and ultimate disappearance. One of the main pleasures of the book is you never know what’s going to happen next. The story bursts with delightful invention and surprise.

Semple’s style is very contemporary, with a lot of the text being made up of e-mail exchanges, faxes and bureaucratic documents full of contemporary jargon and legalese. She is brilliant when it comes to lampooning the uber-technological and bureaucratic world we live in today. Everything gets a critical going over, from pushy school headmistresses telling mothers how to park their cars properly to Microsoft robots that promise to make human limbs practically obsolete. In fact, a lot of the novel reads like a rant against the complex social and technological web we live in today, with its precious over reliance on therapy and aversion to reality. (In one section of the book a mother sends out an anxious e-mail to parents warning that their pre-schoolers may have been exposed to an event that could later cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and outlines strategies to cope.)

At heart, the story is one about the relationship between a mother and her daughter. Bernadette Fox, a once famous architect and creator of the Twenty Mile House (a cutting edge green building years before there was such a thing), has put a stop to her creative life and is pretty much acting like a crazed bag lady. Her 15-year-old daughter, Bee, is a gifted student who adores her. Bernadette is married to Elgie Branch, a robotics wizard whose company has been overtaken by Microsoft. While clearly brilliant, Bernadette is getting angrier and crazier, and has nothing constructive to focus all of her considerable intellectual and creative energies on.  Eventually her husband decides to take some drastic action. With a psychiatric intervention looming, Bernadette goes missing.

The economy of the writing and the tight plotting means Where’d you Go, Bernadette ticks over like a finely tuned clock. This is a real page-turner that always aims to keep the reader entertained. There’s a lot of fine craft in this novel, but it doesn’t wear its cleverness on its sleeve. The book’s message is simple, but one worth repeating in a digital age where so much of our thinking is eagerly done for us by the like of corporate giants Google and Microsoft: working towards a creative end has both therapeutic and social benefits. Our energies are best employed through creativity, otherwise we can become self-destructive menaces to society.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Published by W & N Fiction. ISBN: 9780297867296  RRP: $29.99