Some books matter because of who’s written them. Some books matter because of the universal truths they convey. And some books matter because they’re really damn funny. “Where’d You Go Bernadette,” Maria Semple’s best-selling 2012 novel, falls mostly into the last category. It makes cogent points, sure — about parenting, about success, about anxiety. But the book never takes itself too seriously. “Where’d You Go Bernadette” paints all its contents with a shiny veneer of absurdity. The result is a brilliant novel that is well crafted, astute and always hilarious.
As the novel opens, 15-year-old Bee is planning a trip to Antarctica, a trip long-promised by her mother, Bernadette. Once an architectural phenom, Bernadette is now a borderline recluse after a mysterious event derailed her promising career. Precocious Bee does much of the planning for the trip, while Bernadette makes enemies of the mothers who dominate the social scene at Bee’s Seattle prep school. But as the Antarctic adventure nears, Bernadette goes missing — and that’s when things get really interesting.
“Bernadette’s” plot and characters are certainly unusual, but the book’s real freshness comes from its form as much as its content. Much of the story is relayed through documents — report cards, diary entries, an extended email correspondence between Bernadette and her virtual assistant, Manjula, who works from India. These pieces of the story never stray too far from Bernadette and Bee, and the book reads much faster and snappier for them.
Semple, who wrote for “Arrested Development” and “Saturday Night Live,” clearly knows how to construct a good joke. The book often approaches sitcom-level ridiculousness, especially when dealing with the pretension of Seattle’s upper-class tech culture. (Bee’s father Elgin, a Microsoft hotshot who loves juicing and hates wearing shoes, is a particular delight.)
Here is my plea to you, person who hasn’t yet read “Where’d You Go Bernadette”: I know finding time to read for pleasure is difficult in college. I know it requires far less concentration and effort to get through an episode of New Girl. But this book is worth the minor triumph of willpower required to read it. It’s funny. It’s inventive. It’s as entertaining as any piece of humor writing I’ve encountered. You can binge-watch a sitcom on Netflix later. Binge-read “Where’d You Go Bernadette” now.