Kevin's Reviews > Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
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Jan 12, 2013

really liked it

As a Seattleite, a transplant from the Southwest (Arizona State University), and an aspiring writer, I felt I had a moral imperative to read this overwhelmingly well received book. Perhaps it was because the main character, Bernadette (as well as the author, Maria Semple), were hewing the path from sunny climates to year long rainfall that I had performed four years ago. Perhaps it was just because my brother bought it for me for Christmas. Or perhaps it was because I had heard Semple was anything but nice to my beloved Emerald City. As a self-proclaimed Seattlevangelist, the thought that some hot shot Angeleno would reduce the place I call home into merely the largest corporate, passive-aggressive Microsoft campus in the world made my blood boil. Thankfully, it also had me laughing from cover to cover.

First, before getting to my Seattle fueled righteous indignation, let me speak to the literary qualifications of this story. (Go here for the publisher's summary) The novel is divided into two distinct halves: Pre-Bernadette disappearance and post-Bernadette disappearance. (Don't worry, I won't be answering the story's eponymous question here.) Although both halves are satisfying in entirely different ways, it's the first half, the non-stop Seattle bashing half, that seems to be attracting all the attention. And for good reason. Told in an epistolary fashion, the narration hops around among no fewer than ten narrators telling an entirely meaningless tale of yuppie, upper middle class, passive-aggressive tedium... or so you think. The pace is rapid, switching among moms, teachers, therapists, corporate management at Microsoft (bitterly referred to by the local abbreviation "MS"), and others like a gossip hungry switchboard operator. You quickly become enthralled in the ins and outs of these Queen Anne based, Galer Street School families (full disclosure, I lived on Galer Street for a year during 2011-2012) until you're fully supporting the characters' increasing voyeuristic behaviors in their neighbors' lives. I opened the book and realized I hadn't stopped for breath by the time I reached the hundred page mark,even if I couldn't tell you why.

And that's my first among the few gripes I do have with this story. Although readable at a frenzied pace, it seems to get lost frequently. The rapid back and forths, the quirky eccentrics, and unforeseen twists certainly add to the sense of confusion and paranoia Semple intended to craft for her title character, but loose ends and false starts exist throughout the text with haphazard clean up or simply no clean up at all. To be clear, this is NOT a deal breaker. I highly recommend this story as is. But because this is my review, I'll let you know that I found myself wanting a little more orchestration among the many moving parts that never fully materialized. Without spoiling anything, there are some character arcs that simply conclude with no explanation or resolution. And because the story doesn't hint at a sequel, I assume I'll have to be satisfied with my own imagination to tell me what becomes of these lovable, albeit insane, characters. Just a little criticism, but something I feel is valid to bring up.

I should also bring up Semple's past work as a consulting producer and writer for such amazing shows as Mad About You and Arrested Development. It's clear that she has a mind of a screenwriter. The exposition--for all characters--is parsimonious. The dialogue is snappy. And the humor relies on scenes which could (and now will) translate perfectly to the silver screen. No chapters upon chapters of brooding. No expansive settings described in detail. We are told ice is blue, and that is that. We are told two lovers have sex, and that is that. These things don't have to be explained when projected for a movie audience, and it's clear Semple didn't feel the need to do so in her novel. Again, this is not a devastating problem (or necessarily a "problem" at all given it keeps the pace blisteringly fast). She more than sufficiently makes up for the high level storytelling with exciting scenes, hilarious punchlines, clinically disturbed characters, and even the unexpected moments of pure, genuine vulnerability.

It's a wicked fast read, and by the time you get to the altogether different second half, you'll be counting down the days to see the hilarity ensue with an all-star cast.

Now then. Seattle. I've lived here for four years, and in defense to Semple, in interviews she has come around to loving my unique city after writing the book. But, as with any good satire, she has comically simplified her subject to stereotypes and caricatures, in this case, turning Seattle into one giant ball of rain drenched, knotted panties vying for the front spot on a Microsoft Connector. It's funny. It's intelligent. It's also entirely unfair. Why?

First, ask any East Coast based reader after finishing this novel what city Elgin Branch, Microsoft boy wonder, worked in, and they will emphatically respond with "Seattle," curious as to why you would even ask such a useless question. Unfortunately, Microsoft only has a pittance of a presence in Seattle (I wasn't aware of any presence until just now googling them). Their main campuses, where Elgin works, are located in Bellevue and Redmond, two cities that only get a passing mention in the book. Perhaps this is a technicality to someone from out of town, but think of this comparison as saying Hoboken is one of the NYC boroughs. You're going to get some people more than a little bit frustrated. And because Microsoft/Seattle becomes the seemingly synonymous lightning rod for much of Bernadette's sarcasm, and Semple's satire, I think it's worth noting.

Secondly, no mentions (or unsubstantial passing mentions) are made of Capitol Hill, the International District, Ballard, SoDo, Wallingford, or Belltown. Downtown and the University District get some window dressings, but the overwhelming majority of the story is located in Queen Anne. (Seattleites are collectively saying "really? Queen Anne?" at this point.) Again, to use a New York analogy, a satire about Queens could be hilarious, but it wouldn't be at all representative of the greater NYC area. Why am I writing this? Why do I care? Well because I liked the book enough to give it some extra attention, and for the few people who might read this review AND Semple's novel, I like Seattle enough to defend it from any debilitating generalizations. The book has been on countless "Best of 2012" lists and is being produced already into a movie, after all. So "Semple's Seattle" could very well now take over as the collective understanding of this city. (Usurping--at last?--Pearl Jam, Nirvana, "Grunge" and even 'Sleepless in Seattle.') Seattle is a very insular, even incestuous city (think of Amazon as Microsoft's younger sister), and for that we don't do well with getting out the word to the rest of the country what we're all about.

So perhaps I'm being a little possessive of the change in mainstream understanding. (Kurt Cobain might be dead, but I'd still take him as our patron celebrity over the fictional Bernadette.) But I feel I'm somewhat justified. I live in a neighborhood with more tattoos than people, drag queens inviting you to Sunday brunch, gay politicians coming to your friend's birthday parties, bands emerging out of the woodwork onto Pitchfork, gun shots, zombie parades, off the wall fashions, an apartment building where I know and talk with everyone, and friends I run into--without drama--at the store, bars, gyms, etc. The only time I hear the words "Microsoft" or "Lakeside" are when talking to coworkers from my past life as a CPA or in the aftermath of jockeying for a bus seat gone wrong, losing to an overly gregarious, 30-something three piece suit and his pencil skirted sidekick. They're the reasons why I laughed out loud with this novel. But they're certainly only one facet of Seattle living. One that, frankly, I often forget even exists.

Everything aside: I loved this book. Even if it was an exercise in forced masochism. Coincidentally, last week I started taking improv classes in the shadow of the Space Needle, in this city that Semple refers to as "simply not funny." Perhaps predictably, my real life improv teacher started out by telling us, "we're not here to be funny." What a crowd pleaser. That being said, he also proceeded to lead us through an exercise learning how to laugh at ourselves for the sake of the narrative being portrayed on stage. That's how I see this book. Even if it's not perfect, I think the rest of Seattle, particularly that Queen Anne hill, with it's moms' mundane obsessions over rain, "sunshine," and "boarding school fetishes" would highly benefit from laughing at itself through this novel, maybe even finding their own story because of it. I know I did.
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