I wasn’t planning to crack the cover of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. In fact, I actively resisted reading 2012’s sleeper hit. It has all the makings of something that would send me searching for that elusive “dislike” button. Social satire: Ugh. Chick lit affect (entirely and unfairly due to cover art): Ugh Ugh. Epistolary format with multiple points-of-view (tricksy, metafiction, “I’m a WRITAH” stuff): Ugh Ugh Ugh. Spoofy, anti-Seattle drivel penned by interloper from Southern California (haven’t you all done enough?): Ugh Ugh Ugh Ugh.
But there it was, on the $1 table at the library sale. What could I lose but a buck?
Okay, so… I totally loved this book. It’s magical. Maria Semple makes me laugh out-Parks-and-Recreation-loud (there’s my obligatory pop culture reference. Maria Semple is a celebrated Hollywood scriptwriter - yes, I know she didn't write for P&R, but that's the one comedy I know- we discovered P&R in Ireland last year and rented several DVDs during the dark hours of life last winter. I haven’t had TV since 1994. My television comedy literacy is stuck someplace between Wings and Murphy Brown. This book tickled the same funny bone as P&R. That's why I bring it up).
The book’s magic is multi-fold. Satire often relies on caricature to reflect life’s absurdities, missing the irony that life is so freaking absurd all by itself, there’s no need for a novel to dump on its characters by making them freaks, as well. Semple gives us real people in real time, setting the horizon slightly a-tilt so your balance is off but you aren’t stumbling like a drunk. She blends the bizarre with moments of grace and clarity that reveal the depth of her characters and her themes. Humor works best when it pokes at our most vulnerable spots and shows us that everyone else has those spots, too.
The narrative is laid out in a series of e-mails, letters, articles, police reports, TED talk transcripts and department memos written by a cast of adult characters, but the primary point-of-view is delivered in traditional third-person. And this voice belongs to thirteen-year-old Bee, the tiny (congenital heart defect) daughter of Microsoft exec Elgin Branch and his wife, Bernadette. Bernadette, around whom this story foams and eddies, is a once-celebrated architect and a now-wiggy recluse. The contrast of correspondence and detached transcript versus a child’s perspective is a brilliant technique: the adults talk at one another, while the purest, most reliable character addresses the reader directly.
Semple’s spoofs are fun-house mirror reflections of layers of upper-middle class American society: oversharing to strangers via the save-face format of e-mail and social media (the exchanges between Bernadette and her $.75/hour personal assistant Manjula, who is based in India, are screamingly funny); the obsession with work and achievement (woe to Microsoft, whose culture is skewered and roasted like a vegan hotdog on a gas grill); dogmatic liberalism –Bee splutters her outrage towards her private school:
“Their class was studying China, and the debate was going to be pro and con Chinese occupation of Tibet. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Galer Street is so ridiculous that is goes beyond PC and turns back in on itself to the point where fourth graders are actually having to debate the advantages of China’s genocide of the Tibetan people, not the mention the equally devastating cultural genocide.
This is one bright kid and one whacked-out progressive school.
And then there is Seattle. I read an interview last year in which Maria Semple admitted this book was her rant on all that drove her batty about “this dreary upper-left corner of the Lower Forty-eight” shortly after she moved here; now that she’s been here awhile, she can’t imagine living anyplace else.
But there is no malice in her observations (okay, maybe just a wee bit toward Microsoft, but we all revile the place and anyway, it’s not in Seattle); instead, the author works her magic yet again, nailing dead on the bull’s eye all that makes Seattle maddening and lovely. Although the social strata she spoofs could exist anywhere in America’s wealthier reaches, the details she provides are so crazy-true I caught myself gasping with an insider’s recognition. Elgin’s “bike-riding, Subaru-driving, Keen-wearing alter ego…”? Umm… guilty. Molly Moon’s Salted Caramel ice cream? Jesus. I dream of the stuff. Cliff Mass Weather Blog? The house goes silent at 9 a.m. every Friday so I can listen to Cliff’ prognostications for the week ahead. I can hear his baritone in every syllable of Semple’s transcript.
The five-way intersections? Oh. I know EXACTLY where the author (and Bernadette) lost her mind on Queen Anne (though no one calls it Queen Anne Hill, just so’s you know). Yes, they lurk everywhere throughout our fair city. The Microsoft Connecter? I know it waited every morning on 45th in Wallingford for the express purpose of pulling out in front of me as I raced to beat the next light. Daniel’s Broiler on Lake Union? I always wondered who ate there. If anyone I know has, they aren’t admitting it. Blackberry bushes, the Westin, rain? Check check check. Bernadatte rants to a former colleague:
“What you’ve heard about the rain: it’s all true. So you’d think it would become part of the fabric, especially among the lifers. But every time it rains, and you have to interact with someone, here’s what they’ll say” “Can you believe the weather?” And you want to say “Actually, I can believe the weather. What I can’t believe is that I’m actually having a conversation about the weather.”
The city, and Bernadette’s reactions to it, are part of the web that bears the weight of Semple’s heavier themes: a lost sense of self, depression, isolation and anxiety. That she can hold it all together with such a deft hand at slapstick comedy without being cruel is yet another form of magic.
The plot twists are genius. For Bernadette is not lost just in a metaphorical sense. Semple takes us on a cruise to Antarctica and the book’s title becomes a call that echoes in the blue glaciers of this frozen continent. Hang on – you might get a little seasick as you try to keep up, but it’s so worth the ride.
Maria Semple has written a crazy-good, original, hilarious, sweet and tender novel about a woman falling apart. I think I saw that woman sitting in the window of Starbucks on the corner of Queen Anne Avenue and Boston last winter, laughing to herself. It was raining pretty hard, so I can’t be certain it was she. Maybe it was just my reflection.