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Book review: “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple

The authors of novels about rich Americans face a greater challenge than those who write about the other 90 percent.

If your characters are poor, working-class, middle-class and even upper middle-class, they have built-in struggles that help the reader identify with them — the struggle to keep body and soul together or, at least, the struggle to keep up with the Joneses. The struggle, in other words, to make it somehow.

The struggle for the rich is not to blow it. They have it made in the shade, and so any problem they face is going to seem like not much of a problem to readers out of their income bracket.

Bernadette and her family

semple -- whereTake Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

The central character is Bernadette Fox. She’s a famous and revered architect in her 40s, called Saint Bernadette. And she’s the winner of a $500,000 MacArthur genius grant which she spent, on a whim, to buy an old girls school in Seattle for the family home.

Her husband is Elgin Branch, a creative genius at Microsoft who is a rock star in the company, as one character explains:

Elgin Branch walking down the aisle of the Microsoft Connector is like Diana Ross walking through her adoring audience…People literally reach out and touch him….Not to mention his TEDTalk, which is number four on the list of all-time most-watched TEDTalks.

(A TEDTalk, by the way, is a presentation at the annual TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design] conference, attended by such luminaries as Bill Gates, Al Gore, Bill Clinton and Bono.)

Their daughter is Balakrishna “Bee” Branch, a 15-year-old eighth-grader, small for her age because of severe heart problems as a baby that led to numerous surgeries. Nonetheless, she has developed as a stellar daughter and student. One teacher describes her this way:

Bee is a pure delight. Her love of learning is infectious, as are her kindness and humor. Bee is unafraid to ask questions. Her goal is always deep understanding of a given topic, not merely getting a good grade. The other students look to Bee for help in their studies, and she is always quick to respond with a smile….

And it goes on for four more sentences.

Creative, brilliant and…

Could you find a more successful family? Creative, brilliant and — did I mention? — rich.

True, rich people are people too, and they have their crosses to bear.

Bernadette’s cross is a disdain for most of the rest of the human race and a bad case of agoraphobia (in her case, anxiety at being pretty much anywhere except at home).

Elgin’s cross and Bee’s cross is Bernadette.

Oh, Semple doesn’t put it quite that way. Throughout the novel, Bee never wavers in her love for her mother. Elgin does, but, by the end, that’s OK because he really didn’t mean it and he was mistaken about some sketchy-looking information he found out about his wife.

Bernadette’s social anxieties and antipathies go back to a Huge Hideous Thing in her past which, without giving away too much of the story, is a sad thing. But something many architects face.

And they lead her to decide, despite the family’s boatloads of money, to hire a personal secretary in India, Marjula Kapoor, to conduct all of her business — a 40-hour job for which the pay if $30. What a deal!

Complications and a solution

Again, without tipping off too much, Marjula ends up causing major complications in the lives of the three family members.

And the solution to all of the family’s problems is found — wait for it! — in Antarctica.

Some readers may find all this humorous and entertaining, such as her critique of the Seattle scene and people. Yet, all the anti-Seattle ranting, witty at first, comes to seem like simply ranting.

Aside from being rich and facing problems that are foreign to me — problems that can be solved, for instance, in Antarctica — Semple’s characters don’t ring true.

Bee is too perfect. Elgin is a cipher. The other characters change personalities, it seems, to enable plot twists. And the plot twists themselves seem forced.

As I neared the end of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I didn’t care.

Patrick T. Reardon

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