Being a misunderstood genius and living among fools can be stressful – and funny. In a rollicking narrative that combines emails, report cards, and the voice of a certified MacArthur genius, Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? creates an adventure about the consequences of feeling misplaced. Stereotyping Seattle with Microsoft, Starbucks, and rain is easy, but Semple cleverly uses this base to satirize the obvious while weaving the story around Bernadette’s life. Semple was a writer for comedy shows – Mad About You, Arrested Development – with a brand of humor that connected to me. As I was laughing, sometimes I wondered how she had gotten inside my head.
Elgin Branch, a “rock-star” at Microsoft, has invented Samantha, a robot who can be directed through a microchip band-aid on the forehead (similar to a true and recent news story about brain implants in the disabled that manipulate robotic arms). His wife, Bernadette, an acclaimed architect who invented the greening of buildings, won the MacArthur award for her twenty-mile house (all materials used available within 20 miles of construction). After an incident in LA (no spoilers here), she shifts her focus to raising her brilliant daughter, Bee. Bee’s Christmas wish is to go to Antarctica, and the adventure begins.
Bernadette would not describe herself as an introvert, but the maddening neighbor who insists on the demolition of blackberry bushes, the parents who ostracize anyone who does not volunteer at the school, and the slow-moving traffic can sometimes be too much for her East Coast mentality; idiots are everywhere. Feeling overwhelmed and alone, Bernadette hires an online service and befriends her virtual assistant. After a series of mishaps involving the “gnats” at school, the FBI, and a well-meaning therapist, Bernadette excuses herself, goes to her bathroom, and disappears. The incident is later explained (no magic or Harry Potterisms here) and the resolution is one of the funniest in the book.
The plot lines are complicated but never confusing, and in the search for Bernadette, I could not help cheering her escape, as well as hoping she would be found (again, no spoilers – you’ll have to read to find out where she went).