Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Maria Semple

There are many unbelievable things in this epistolary novel inspired by Maria Semple’s move from LA to Seattle, but maybe the biggest is that average people would write such long, detailed emails — and, at times, faxes? Semple found Seattle’s crunchy, sustainable culture hard to stomach at first, which is how the book begins with a report card from a private school where the grades are all phrased around “excellence” so as not to erode any kids’ self-esteem. These digs at West Coast liberalism can be fairly entertaining, but it makes it a bit harder to develop much connection to the characters through the “satire of privilege.”

The family at the center of the book includes the stunningly brilliant child Bee, recipient of straight “Surpasses Excellence” grades, who now wants to cash in on a parental promise with a trip to Antarctica. Her father is some kind of genius of robots who works within a prestigious group at Microsoft. Her mother Bernadette was a star architect in her 30s but various life disappointments have left her in a nearly agoraphobic state. The trip sends Bernadette into an anxious frenzy, though the “Where’d You Go?” question is as much about what happened to her creative drive as it is about her eventual physical disappearance.

Supporting characters are equally quirky, but it’s overall a largely static quirky. As the story progresses and various people make realizations that enable the course of events to change quickly, it doesn’t come across as dynamically human moments as much as plot-convenient progress. Yet if you’re able to get into the humor, you’ll likely breeze past these forced moments without much distraction.