It’s fun to read a book or watch a movie set in my hometown of Seattle, so I was looking forward to reading the new novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple. Having heard the author interviewed on NPR, I knew the story would be Seattle-centric and funny – Semple is a former television writer for such comedies as Mad About You and Arrested Development.
(To get a flavor of Semple’s wit, check out her book trailer)
The novel didn’t disappoint and I was pleasantly surprised to find that underneath the humor and the mystery was a deeper story about what happens to “an artist who had stopped creating.”
Told from the perspective of Bernadette’s daughter Bee, a precocious eighth-grader, the novel is a collection of documents including letters, notes, faxes, emails, transcripts and reports knit together by Bee’s own narration of events. The epistolary format plunged me into the actions, thoughts, feelings and voices of the story’s characters.
The story begins with Bernadette Fox, her husband Elgin Branch, a “Level 80 corporate VP” at Microsoft, and Bee planning a trip to Antarctica as a reward for Bee’s good grades. The idea of trip makes Bernadette anxious and ambivalent and she starts to unravel.
Bernadette, a former architect, fled to Seattle eighteen years prior to escape Los Angeles in the wake of the “Huge Hideous Thing,” an event that had something to do with the fate of one of the two houses she built in LA: Beeber Bifocal and the Twenty Mile House
Beeber Bifocal was an ingenious transformation of a factory into a home using found objects. The Twenty Mile House, which was constructed using only materials sourced within a twenty mile radius of the house putting her years ahead of the green building movement, made her a hero in the architecture community and earned her the designation of MacArthur Genius.
Bernadette clearly hasn’t recovered from the unspeakable event and her intense hatred of all things Seattle (“this Canada-close sinkhole they call the Emerald City”) is symptomatic of her deep unhappiness and inability to get unstuck from the past.
One of the delights of this book is Bernadette’s many and varied criticisms of Seattle and its denizens. Some are clichéd (it rains a lot, we dress badly, newcomers are frozen out, etc.) and others are hilarious:
Referring to renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly’s creations: “Chihuly’s are the pigeons of Seattle. They’re everywhere…”
On Seattle drivers: “They’re the slowest drivers you ever saw. If someone is at a five-way stoplight and, growing old while they’re waiting for the lights to cycle through, and finally, finally it’s time to go, you know what they do? They start, then put on their brakes in the middle of the intersection. You’re hoping they lost a half a sandwich under their seat and are digging for it, but no. They’re just slowing down because, hey, it is an intersection.”
As an architect, Bernadette is especially horrified by the many Craftsman-style houses, “the walls will be thick, the windows tiny, the rooms dark, the ceilings low, and it will be poorly situated on the lot.”
So true. (I confess that I live in a “modern take on Craftsman”)
Why is Bernadette living in a decaying 20,000 square foot home that was once a school for wayward girls but is now moldy, rotting and overrun by blackberry bushes? She seems to have lost herself and her inspiration.
As Bernadette irritates the “gnats” or other mothers at Bee’s school and gets into a confrontation with a neighbor over blackberry bushes, she becomes erratic. Elgin grows increasingly concerned about her poor judgment (handing their personal and financial information to a suspect virtual assistant in India; falling asleep in a pharmacy) and stages an intervention to have her committed to “Madrona Hills,” a psychiatric facility. During the intervention, Bernadette slips out the bathroom window and disappears.
The search for Bernadette begins and it seems she may have gone to Antarctica after all. Like the search for the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, also an epistolary novel, Elgin and Bee eventually end up in the ice and snow at the end of the earth searching for their “monster.”
While father and daughter slowly repair their relationship in a remote and extraordinary natural environment, they search for clues to Bernadette’s whereabouts and edge toward a future together.
Semple’s novel is rich with information and detail about everything from TED lectures to Adelie penguins, but at its core, I found “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” to be a darkly comedic caper (if there is such a thing) about a woman/mother/architect who lost her identity and goes to extremes to get it back.
What do you think of the book? Did you find it convincing? Funny? Too down on Seattle?