Hatred fuels hilarity
Missing wife makes for much fun
Well, here’s a hilarious book. It’s about a mother, Bernadette, who suffered a “really bad thing” and now hardly leaves the house. She hires a virtual assistant in India, who does things like make dinner reservations. She’s an outcast among Seattle private school mothers because she never volunteers in the classroom and doesn’t walk her daughter Bee to the door when she drops her off at school.
Her husband, Elgie, is a Microsoft wunderkind working on a secret project. Bernadette used to be a genius architect before the “really bad thing,” but now she’s mainly a misanthropic recluse. Before secondary school, Bee aces her report card and calls her parents on a promise to give her whatever she wants for a perfect report card.
What she wants is a trip to Antarctica; this causes anxiety for her mother because she hates people, hates to leave the house and suffers seasickness. But for Bee, she will go. Days before they’re scheduled to leave, Bernadette disappears after a heated incident with her husband.
The story is narrated by Bee, but the actual linear narration is minimal. Most of the story is told in bits and pieces through emails, memos from the school, and other bits of evidence. This way, author Maria Semple gets us inside the heads of many different characters, and mostly Bernadette, who is truly hilarious.
Bernadette’s hatred of everyone and everything about Seattle allows Semple the chance to poke fun at Seattle, and especially Canadians, through the slightly off thought pro-
By Maria Semple Little, Brown and Company
$28.99; 336 pages cesses of Bernadette as she spirals out of control. For example, Bernadette writes to her assistant, “One of the reasons I don’t like leaving the house is because I might find myself face-toface with a Canadian. Seattle is crawling with them. ... The way you might fear a cow sitting down in the middle of the street during rush hour, that’s how I fear Canadians.”
Semple lives in Seattle, so her observations about the city south of Vancouver and its inhabitants are pretty much on the mark. She was previously a TV writer, with work on Ellen, Saturday Night Live and Mad About You. She’s also the author of This One is Mine, a 2008 novel about a dissatisfied wife and mother.
Women who disappear are a theme this year in fiction — Gone Girl, a story by Gillian Flynn about a wife who disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary, tackles a similar subject, but in a different manner. Here, although the reasons for Bernadette’s despair are serious, the storytelling is funny to the point of zaniness. The story hooks you in immediately with its modern themes of over-thetop parenting, technology and isolation and doesn’t let you go until the ending.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette