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Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Maria Semple

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 13, 2012
Category: Fiction

We may not like jerks in our real lives, but we sure love them in our entertainment.

Remember “Entourage,” with Jeremy Piven as super-agent Ari Gold? Aggressive and obnoxious but invariably brilliant, he was good for a Hollywood miracle every show.
Or Hugh Laurie in “House.” Arrogant, addicted, afflicted with Asperger’s — with those three strikes, he should have been out. But he was smarter than Stephen Hawking, and we couldn’t get enough of an anti-social genius invariably cracking the diagnosis — in 2008, “House” was the most watched television program in the world. And in its final season, Hugh Laurie earned $700,000 per episode, more than any actor on a dramatic program.
The reigning wretched personalitiy we can’t get enough of is Bryan Cranston as Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” The former high school teacher turned meth cook and drug tycoon is a mega-felon, a killer, a corrupter of youth — and yet…. Watch from :45 to 1:35 and see if, against all reason, he thrills you.

And now we have Bernadette Fox, the title character of Maria Semple’s wickedly smart, majorly amusing second novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” We meet her just after Bee, her eighth grade daughter, produces a report card of straight Ss — “S” for “Surpasses Excellence” — at her private school in Seattle. Now Bee can have any wish she wants. And what she wants is a family trip to Antarctica over Christmas.
Bernadette’s response: an e-mail to her virtual assistant in India, asking her to arrange the trip.
Her assistant’s response: a bill. 40 hours a week at 75 cents an hour.
And to hammer home the privilege that exists in Seattle and not in Delhi, the next chapterette is a letter to the parents of Bee’s school from a consultant who’s been hired to upgrade the student body. Right now, the school — “a place where compassion, academics and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse plane” — has many “Suburu parents.” It craves “Mercedes parents.“
Bee’s parents are in a category all their own. Elgin Branch, Bee’s father, is a Microsoft hotshot who has given “the fourth-most-watched TED talk” ever. And, way back when, Bernadette won a MacArthur. Now, though, she is the queen of nasty. Her hates include Dale Chihuly glass sculpture, Idaho and you-name-it. She even nails kelp. 
The Branches may be unlike people we know, but I have a sneaking sense that Maria Semple knows all of them. So the book bounces happily around, from a blackberry patch to a note from a Microsoft assistant to an incident at school involving Bernadette driving over a woman’s foot — yes, this is a social satire, told in all manner of media. Clever? And then some. When it comes to middle-aged, upper-range hipness, Semple owns the territory west of the Rockies. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] 
The question for the reader is: Why is Bernadette so screwed up? Soon enough we find out and have to come to terms with a notion we don’t see much in fiction — that the truly talented are even more damaged than we are. Which makes them very hard to fix. Which is the subject of the middle of the novel. And then..
No, this can’t be happening again. Reviewing This One Is Mine, Semple’s first novel, I wrote:
I’m holding something back here, and it’s my disappointment with the last eighty pages. As a domestic drama — as a story of love and misunderstanding — this book is sublime. It’s got wit and humor and a laugh-out-loud chapter in a New Age retreat. It’s even got a happy ending that seems well-earned.
Alas, that ending is not the ending of the book. There’s more, and much of it is antic farce…. Reading the last few chapters, I thought — as I often do these days — that somebody should send novelists a memo: A novel no longer has to fill 300 pages, 200 will do just fine.
And here it’s happened again. The last section of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is a 75-page account of the trip to Antarctica. It stopped me like a polar wind. I mean, I could not have cared less. Had to force myself to keep going. During which time I thought of several other ways — swift, witty ways — Semple might have resolved the story.
Maybe it’s just me. Jonathan Franzen went nuts for this book, and he’s not even Semple’s old boyfriend. Many talented people — people I admire — worked on this book. And everything to this point could not be smarter. So I might be way off here. But yet again I cry out: Give me your finished manuscripts, your certain bestsellers, to edit, and I will finish the job.
Here are your choices: Romp through the first 250 pages of what may be the funniest book you’ll read in quite some time and, like me, see if you really want to stop there. Or read it all and see if — or how much — my judgment is flawed. Either outcome, I suspect, could be very satisfying.