Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Apparently I have reached a point where “not enough Indians” can be my stance on a book. It’s a good book though.

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For me, the most fascinating character in Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? was one who was offscreen (or whatever that term’s literary equivalent might be) the whole time, and eventually, it turned out, may not have existed.

Semple’s book tells of the disappearance of its title character through a collection of documents—emails, letters, bills, transcripts, even a school report card—all put together and interspersed with narrative by Bernadette’s daughter Bee as part of her search for her mother. We learn that Bernadette was, several years ago, a celebrated young architect, a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award, that her insistence on using local materials was way ahead of its time. We also know that her husband Elgin is a genius computer programmer. In the years since her finest work was destroyed, however, Bernadette has withdrawn from the world. She drops her daughter to school by car, never getting out to meet the other parents, or volunteering for school activities. She accomplishes most household tasks through the offices of an online personal assistant. She certainly hasn’t worked as an architect in several years.

If Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is overly quirky at times, it’s also a smart, lighthearted exploration of creativity and depression, as a precocious teenage girl might see it. We have here the snappy dialogue and observational comedy that are probably the legacy of Semple’s time as a TV writer, and the broad stereotypes with which we’re presented at the beginning of the book remain unchanged at the end, though perhaps we’re encouraged to see them more kindly.

But then there’s Manjula. Early on, we’re told that Manjula Kapoor is an associate with an organization known as “Delhi Virtual Assistants International”. For the rather exploitative fee of seventy-five cents an hour, she manages her client’s life entirely. New clothes and other items are selected and bought online by Manjula, and delivered to Bernadette’s house. She arranges flight tickets and makes restaurant bookings. She is superlatively efficient. She even manages to sound polite and friendly when faced with Bernadette’s ramblings about Ikea (“You know what it’s like when […]Of course you don’t.”) or her frequent rudeness (“You are able to place calls, aren’t you? Of course, what am I thinking? That’s all you people do now”, “you bet your bindi that’s how big I want it”). She is the ideal assistant, made all the more so by the fact that she’s never seen. It’s easy to compare her to Elgin’s administrator, Soo-Lin, who is too present, and with whom Elgin cheats on his wife.

Elgin disapproves of his wife’s employment of Manjula, and later events seem to prove him right. Delhi Virtual Assistants International doesn’t exist, and nor does Manjula. The whole thing has been a scam, a front for a Russian crime syndicate who are now in possession of the family’s financial details. Incidentally, this means that a book with characters named Manjula and Balakrishna (Bee’s real name, because she was blue when born) and set in part among computer programmers in America has no Indians.

And yet, all of this only makes me more curious about the perfect assistant. Her name (or his name, or their name) may not have been Manjula Kapoor, but someone has been reading and replying to emails, negotiating with chemists for stronger anti-seasickness drugs, making dentist’s appointments and booking flight tickets and restaurant tables.

To wish that a book had been written from a different perspective altogether is like wishing it had a different ending, or different characters; it is to want change something fundamental about it. Semple’s an author fully in control of her book; there’s a reason that it is narrated by Bee and not Manjula. But perhaps it’s something fundamental that I want to change. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a book that suggests that its various wealthy and privileged characters are worthy of a lot more kindness than we are at first inclined to give them. I wonder whether Semple could have made a convincing case for doing so from Manjula’s perspective.

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