I will tell you a secret. If you ask a bookseller about a novel and they say, “It’s really funny,” you needn’t read that book. It’s bookseller-speak for “this book has little else going for it,” the literary equivalent of a good personality. Same goes for “I’ve heard good things,” “People really like it,” and “It’s been popular with book clubs.” At least, these were my code words for mediocre books during my 10 years as a bookseller.
On the rare occasion that literary fiction is deeply moving and hysterically funny (Skippy Dies), I find myself leaving the funny part out of my description, or saving it for last, once I have convinced someone of the book’s extreme literary merit. “It’s also really funny,” I say, hastening to add, “but mostly it’s just really moving and wise.”
Of course, in the case of non-fiction, “it’s really funny” is high praise, a sure way to sell a book. Such are the vagaries of bookselling.
What I’m saying is that when I got a copy of Where’d You Go, Bernadette I set it aside. Funny books are not for me, you see, because I’ve read War and Peace three times, and the publicity for Bernadette is adamant about how funny it is. Its author, Maria Semple, has written for Arrested Development and Mad About You, and this is her second book. I turn to TV and movies for comedy and romance and reserve my reading for deep sad people like Per Petterson.
I eventually did pick up Bernadette because a few trusted reviewers had told me it had its merits and because I was tired of reading about young British men losing their virginity between the wars, which is another story. Lo and behold, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is really, really funny, and not in the usual way that suggests the author is trying to be funny to cover up their deficiencies in plot or styling. As it turns out, Maria Semple is both a good writer and a funny writer, but she prefers to be the latter.
It may be those TV instincts — which, for better or worse, I was endlessly picking out in her work — but given the choice Semple will almost always make a scene ridiculous. The book as a whole is, intentionally, a farce.
Elgin Branch and his wife Bernadette Fox live in Seattle with their fifteen-year-old daughter, Bee. Elgin heads up a classified robotics division at Microsoft. Bernadette is a once-famous and revolutionary architect who hasn’t worked in years, and is going a little nuts. Bee is an ideal child. Over the course of three months, their lives fall apart, and the story is told through a collection of documents, mostly emails, between the characters.
The main problem is that Bernadette hates Seattle. She hates the parking meters, she hates the rain, she really hates the other moms. This has made her unbalanced, and she unburdens herself in long emails to a virtual assistant in India. Lucky for us, the moms hate her back. The email correspondence between two of the moms at Bee’s school (one of whom is their next-door neighbor, one of whom is Elgin’s secretary) are the treasures of the book. These two ladies are so awash in pop psychology, upper-class entitlement, and defensive parenting as to result in a combination of self-awareness and self-delusion that is at once unbelievable and immediately recognizable. Consider:
Today at Whole Foods, a woman I didn’t even recognize recognized me and said she was looking forward to my brunch. Judging from the contents of her shopping cart — imported cheese, organic raspberries, fruit wash spray — she is the exact quality of parent we need at Galer Street. I saw her in the parking lot. She was driving a Lexus. Not a Mercedes, but close enough!
Via their emails, school memos, Bernadette’s exchanges with her virtual assistant, police reports, ER bills, and interjections by Bee, we are told a story of rumor, miscommunication, and distrust that pushes Bernadette to skip town. All this manic action is well-plotted and masterfully satirical, which is obviously Semple’s TV-trained forte. She’s never not playing to her strengths, introducing absurdist comedy into the most somber of situations. There are times when she’s having such fun making fun of the secondary characters that the primary characters get ignored. It’s hard to believe that absolutely everyone the Branch-Fox family comes into contact with is that kooky, but then this isn’t a believable story, it’s a comedy.
After Bernadette disappears and Elgin and Bee are left to uncover her whereabouts, the secondary characters and their wacky emails all fade away and the story becomes, in the end, about the family. It may seem too late if you were hoping for an earnest family story all along, but if you’re willing to enjoy it as a parody of first-world life then you’ll like this book. It’s really funny.