Tue August 14, 2012
Screwball Satire With A Warm Heart In 'Bernadette'
What happens when a talented, Type A, hyperachieving woman married to an even more successful man quits working? In former television writer Maria Semple's experience — which she's channeled into her first two novels — the mood swings, loss of bearings, and toxic dissatisfaction aren't pretty, though she plays them for laughs.
Semple's first novel, This One Is Mine, featured an at-loose-ends former television writer who risks her cushy life for a sexually mesmerizing, drug-addicted bass player. The book's greatest asset is Semple's fresh, sassy voice, but it is essentially another saga of a bored housewife seeking satisfaction in all the wrong places. Not so Semple's delightfully sharp-clawed second novel, a comic caper called Where'd You Go, Bernadette, about a wonderfully eccentric, vitriolic, MacArthur-winning former architect and the plucky teenage daughter determined to find her when she goes missing. As Moliere made clear, there's humor aplenty in misanthropy, and Semple milks her character's bile to great satirical effect.
Twenty years ago, Bernadette Fox was at the cutting edge of green design before such a thing existed. Her most famous work, the Twenty Mile House in Los Angeles, was a sort of locavore project, with all materials sourced from within a 20-mile radius. After bad things happen between her and the crass neighbor with whom she shares a driveway (I don't want to say more), Bernadette abandons architecture and flees north to Seattle with her husband, Elgin Branch.
Elgin, a genius working at Microsoft on a robot featured in "the fourth-most-watched TED Talk" ever, takes to the healthier-than-thou Seattle culture — but not Bernadette. She holes up in the decrepit former Catholic school for wayward girls that they buy but never renovate, and she rants: about five-way intersections, slow drivers, Canadians, women who don't dye their hair — and, especially, the PC parents at her daughter's private school, whom she calls gnats. Semple is merciless in skewering false pieties, as she demonstrated in her hilarious New Yorker story "Dear Mountain Room Parents," which featured a rash of inane emails expressing concerns over plans for a Day of the Dead celebration.
All this sourness is sweetened by Bernadette's endearing relationship with her 15-year-old daughter, Bee, who was born with a congenital heart defect that required multiple surgeries to correct. When Bee requests a family trip to Antarctica as the long-promised reward for her straight-S (for "Surpasses Excellence") report cards, reclusive Bernadette can't refuse. But, as travel plans proceed, Bernadette falls prey to an Internet scam and gets into an alarming, escalating battle with a disapproving "gnat" who's also a neighbor. Roused from his work trance, her husband resorts to drastic measures to try to get her psychiatric help.
Semple has constructed an energetic screwball comedy, interweaving a lively mix of police and FBI reports, school documents and catty, indiscreet emails written by her various characters. These are stitched together with commentary by Bee, who's studying all the material in her attempt to figure out what's happened to her mother when she disappears. Secure in her love, Bee insists that Bernadette would never do anything that "would mean she might never see me again."
There's a lot to like in Semple's charming novel, including the vivacious humor and the lesson that when creative forces like Bernadette stop creating, they become "a menace to society." Even more appealing is the mutually adoring mother-daughter relationship at its warm heart. "Do you know how absolutely exotic it is that you haven't been corrupted by fashion and culture?" Bernadette writes approvingly to Bee. And in that same letter, after mentioning that icebergs are tens of millions of years old and calve from glaciers, she adds: "This is why you must love life: one day you're offering up your social security number to the Russian Mafia; two weeks later you're using the word calve as a verb." Lovely.