Misunderstanding our Own Perceptions: A Laughable Tale

Book review by Julie Stenberg: Where’d you Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette is about predetermined ideas, not just a narrative.  It is easy to overlook the moral of the novel because the story is a whirlwind.  It includes an award winning female architect, a brilliant Microsoft visionary, a dynamic prep school teenager, a stereotypical high-minded busybody, the FBI, an Antarctica trip through the Drake Passage, and a missing person, among other things.  Perhaps most interesting about the novel is the format in which it is told: a thread of private letters from the various characters to trusted confidants.  This method of seeing into the classified communication of the cast of Where’d you Go, Bernadette, enables the readers to see how our perceived truths about others are not always accurate.

The plot and dialog are so quick and smart, that only Maria Semple could have devised it.  She is the author of This One is Mine, she’s written for such knee-slapper comedies as Mad about You, Ellen and Arrested Development.  Only a mastermind cunning and wily can keep all the plates spinning so skillfully in Where’d you Go, Bernadette?  Though the book is inherently funny, it houses the serious vein of prejudice that innocently runs through each of us.

Bernadette Fox is a high strung, prophetic architect turned mother who has lost her confidence.  The paradox does not stop there.  While walking in the world of the extremely wealthy, she lives in a nearly uninhabitable home.  She has patterns of agoraphobia and extreme paranoia, yet entrusts her family’s entire worldly fortune to an internet assistant from India at seventy-five cents per hour.  If there’s a fight against the gentry that needs to be fought, Bernadette is willing to spare no expense to do it.  In a confessional letter to her mentor, she says: “Getting into fights with people makes my heart race.  Not getting into fights with people makes my heart race.”

The character of Bernadette must be inspired by the belief that creative minds are a little bit nuts;  the idea that the extremely wealthy have little regard for money, yet will go to great extremes to save a few pennies; and the impression that there must be more to such a person than meets the eye.  She is a larger than life personality who makes readers shake their heads but also say, “She has a point!  Wish I had the guts to do that.”  She is loved deeply by her daughter, Balakrishna (the naming of whom is another hilarious example of emotion and spontaneity).  Bernadette is despised by the clichéd private school moms.  She is revered by the architectural community as a reclusive American icon.  She is lovable and flawed in the way of a favorite sweater.

In the novel, our protagonist has left artistry far behind and exists primarily to enable her daughter to live and succeed in the Seattle suburbs.  Bernadette’s nemesis, Audrey Griffin, the scheming other mother who tries to ruin the Fox family reputation, reminds us of every conniving mother we’ve ever known.  Yet what Semple has managed to create in these two characters is that no one is truly stereotypical.  The power struggle between the two moms, the role that gossip plays on society, the desire to be the best mother in the school, all lead to disaster, but not in the way that the reader might suspect.  The lesson is that it is dangerous to prejudge even stock characters.

As Bernadette’s inherent need for recognition from both her husband, technological genius Elgin Branch, and her daughter Bee increases, her grip on reality spins awry and the Chinese plates begin to fall.   A looming family adventure to Antarctica (doesn’t everyone wish to take an Antarctic cruise to reconnect with the fam?) begins to weigh dreadfully on her need to hide away from people.  Her ingénue personal assistant in India has more in mind than making dinner reservations.  Her mentor and supporter challenges her to begin creating again, “People like you must create.  If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.” And the perceptions of others begin to whittle away Elgin’s unconditional love.  The crash that is heard when the spinning stops results in an FBI investigation, an illegitimate child, a broken teen, and most importantly, a vanishing woman.  Bernadette Fox is MIA.

The real hero of this story is the relatively innocent daughter, Bee.  Perhaps because she is young and untainted, she is the sole character who can see the evidence without prejudice and with a pure heart.  While the spinning plates splinter one by one, it is only Bee who realizes the chance to trust, and to change perceptions.  Maria Semple has brought forth a story with wit, charisma, and surprise introducing characters we all know, offering a different point of view than the reader expects.   Where’d you Go, Bernadette encourages the reader to recognize that it’s not always about the story after all, but about the human perception of life.

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Paul is a writer, editor, and musician who lives, works, and plays in West Michigan.