Where'd you go BernadetteBernadette is a genius. She’s a renowned architect who, about twenty years ago, suddenly stopped working. Infamously reclusive, she lives in a rundown former school for wayward girls in Seattle with her husband, Elgie, and daughter, Bee. Elgie is a genius too. He works for Microsoft as a top programmer and has the fourth most watched TED talk ever. As a present for getting into Choate boarding school Bee requests that the family take a cruise to Antarctica. As the trip draws closer Bernadette’s anxiety threatens to overwhelm her, circumstances conspire, everything comes to a head and Bernadette disappears, probably somewhere in Antarctica.

Bernadette’s story is told through a series of letters, emails, articles and reports, strung together by Bee’s narrative. Bee has fastidiously pieced together her mother’s life in the lead-up to her disappearance in the hopes it will point to where her mother went and why she’s gone.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette could just as easily be titled ‘first world problems’, that ubiquitous, snide catchcry used to downplay any complaints privileged people have about life. Normally I say, well that’s the only kind of problem I can have. Am I not allowed to complain about anything? But Bernadette takes it to a new level. She has an unflinchingly negative attitude towards everything, hates all people (except Bee and Elgie) and rants endlessly about the same pet peeves. Bernadette’s most violent rants are directed towards Seattle – the people are unfailingly nice and bland (but not quite as bad as Canadians) and too preoccupied with upward mobility and social niceties, and the city is full of five-way intersections.

Maria Semple went to Choate Rosemary Hall (which she also lampoons), and currently lives in Seattle. She admits to having hated Seattle when she first moved there, but she loves it now. So I suppose she knows what she’s making fun of. My only reference point for Seattle is from watching Frasier. I think it’s an interesting choice to so heavily mine the negatives of one particular city for comedy. If you haven’t been there it’s hard to understand how it could really be that bad.

Bernadette is witheringly elitist. To be resentful of the smallness of other people’s lives seems crazy, how does it hurt you? Maybe that’s what being an eccentric genius feels like. To a certain degree Bernadette is clearly suffering from mental illness so I couldn’t really blame her. And seen through Bee’s eyes Maria Semple manages to create sympathy for the irrepressible Bernadette. I don’t know that I liked Bernadette but I liked that her daughter loved her unconditionally. Also, the mothers at Bee’s school that Bernadette so hates (referring to them as gnats) are genuinely annoying. They’re morally superior, chastising anyone who is different or doesn’t volunteer for the school or keep their garden immaculate. In one very satisfying moment, Bee slaps chief gnat Audrey Griffen for insulting her mother.

Bee’s defence of Bernadette is valiant but it’s unhealthy. Bee gets tarnished by Bernadette’s negativity and disgust for people – when travelling through Santiago Bee sees kids playing in trash and people washing their clothes among the trash. Her response – ‘It was totally annoying, like, Would one of you just pick up the trash?’ So sad.

Semple really nails the bureaucratic bullshit of private schools – simpering parents trying to attract rich families to their school in order to, by association, awkwardly crawl their way to the top of Seattle’s social hierarchy. The Galer Street parents enlist the help of guru Ollie O., whose school rebranding letters are wonderfully obnoxious, full of cheesy catch phrases and slick jargon – he refers to the targeted rich parents as ‘Mercedes parents’. Not that anyone acting on behalf of a private school would ever be allowed to send letters out that were so honest.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette worked best when I forgot it’s supposed to be funny. I was occasionally amused but I didn’t think it was terribly funny. It is a good story though. I always wanted to know what happened next. Maybe I found it all a bit too real. I often joke that I don’t know how Julie Bowen (who plays stay-at-home mother of three Claire Dunphy on Modern Family) gets nominated for Emmys in the comedy category. Her portrayal of an uptight yet loving suburban mum is painfully true – it’s not funny, it’s deadly serious reality. I’m exaggerating slightly but still… Maybe I’m having the same reaction to Bernadette.