TOM TANGNEY

‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette?’ reduces the book to a self-help story

Aug 16, 2019, 10:56 AM

Sure, the hilarious comic novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Seattle writer Maria Semple has been turned into a movie. But I think they should have tweaked the film title a bit … to Where’d The ‘Funny’ Go, Bernadette?

The funniest novel I’ve read since Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity plays on the big screen like a far too earnest and psychologically explicit family drama. It’s not that the serious stuff isn’t in the novel. It’s just that it’s allowed to sneak up on you, and has a bigger impact as a result.

Take away the book’s humor and satire and you lose a major reason Semple had a runaway bestseller.

The character, Bernadette, a wife and mother and a one time architect, is the source of much of that humor. Her wit and biting sarcasm immediately endear her to the reader as she mercilessly skewers the inanities of contemporary living.

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Although she’s snobbish and quite full of herself, she’s also overwhelmed just enough by the demands of daily life — her house is a mess, she can’t stand small-talk socializing — that she comes off as mostly relatable.

Author Semple surrounds her with comically insufferable and “provincial” Seattleites, so that you can’t help but root for her. Whenever you’re not laughing with Bernadette, you’re no doubt laughing at her ridiculous neighbors, school parents, et al.

Once the laughs and a rooting interest are firmly established, the reader slowly begins to see the cracks in Bernadette’s facade.

Unfortunately, famed director Richard Linklater dispenses with much of the humor and almost immediately starts picking away at the cracks. The wacky antagonists in Bernadette’s life are toned down (and so, not as funny) and that makes Bernadette’s sarcasm come off more as bitter than witty.

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It’s clear that Linklater was more drawn to the emotional side of the novel than the comic side. And if you were that rare reader who wished for a clearer, simpler through-line in the novel, you might even appreciate Linklater’s streamlining. I fully acknowledge the book makes for a tricky cinematic transition because of its epistolary nature.

It’s made up of a compilation of email chains, social media dictations, book reports, police reports, doctor’s reports, and good old fashioned letters. Much of the fun is trying to read between the lines of the various writers of said writings. By taking Bernadette and her problems too seriously too quickly, Linklater strips his heroine of so much of her personality.

Thematically, he makes baldly explicit what’s mostly implicit in the book: Bernadette’s evolving state of mind. It’s as if he’s taken a narrative shortcut by making the subtext the actual text, which robs it of much of its emotional power.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is not meant to be, and can’t support, a deep dive into character psychology. It’s better viewed as a comedy of manners, full of rich insights into character and family dynamics. It should be embraced as a kind of 21st-century Jane Austen novel. Instead, Linklater inadvertently reduces it to a rather perfunctory self-help book. And that’s not funny.

Tom Tangney on KIRO Radio

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‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette?’ reduces the book to a self-help story