Maria Semple's "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" skewers the pretensions of Seattle's new money while introducing a crazy cast of characters you find yourself caring about.
‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’
by Maria Semple
Little, Brown, 336 pp., $25.99
I might not be the best person to objectively review “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” Maria Semple’s hilarious sendup of 21st-century Seattle’s affluent elite and the spell it’s cast over our formerly funky city.
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Like the eponymous Bernadette, I hate the interminable, passive-aggressive traffic lights at Seattle’s five-way intersections. Like Bernadette’s daughter Bee, a child of mine once attended (for one long year) an elite private Seattle school: that autumn in kindergarten, a potlatch honoring our proud Native-American heritage was celebrated with nary a Native American, never mind a child of color, in sight (comments to this effect were not appreciated). I mourn the old Seattle, the unpretentious middle-class town I moved to in the 1980s that was swallowed whole by the tech boom.
In short, I was predisposed to love this multilayered farce, which skewers the pretensions of Seattle’s new money like nothing you’re likely to read for a good long while.
Author Semple is a former L.A. resident who wrote extensively for television, notably the comic classic “Arrested Development,” before she moved north and started writing books. In the old days “Bernadette” would have been called an epistolary novel. Except that it’s the 21st century, so the reader follows the story along through emails, memos, notes (to the “blackberry abatement specialist”) and private-school report cards where kids are graded on this scale: S = Surpasses Excellence; A = Achieves Excellence; W = Working Towards Excellence.
Anything less than Excellence — sorry, not allowed.
Bee Branch is an eighth-grader at Seattle’s Galer Street School. She gets all S’s, tutors kindergartners and has become an accomplished flute player in her spare time. Dad Elgin Branch is a Microsoft guru, internationally famous through TED talks: “Elgin Branch walking down the aisle of the Microsoft connector is like Diana Ross walking through her adoring audience. … People literally reach out and touch him,” writes his adoring administrative assistant.
Elgin works all the time. The domestic front is left to Bee’s mother, Bernadette Fox, a brilliant architect who won a MacArthur Genius grant for her groundbreaking residential designs in Los Angeles. Eighteen years after moving to Seattle, Bernadette, whose talent foundered on some rough shoals in L.A., literally hates our city, with its suffocating political correctness and its relentless devotion to the Craftsman style.
The family lives in a decrepit Queen Anne pile, formerly a girls school (“The Straight Gate School for Girls.”). Bernadette ignores the blackberries erupting through the floor, orders takeout, retreats to her Airstream in the back yard and starts wearing a fishing vest nonstop. Bee, the family glue, labors heroically to keep her mom and dad together, but things start to fall apart when Bernadette contracts with a “virtual assistant,” based in India, and pays “Majula Kapoor” 75 cents an hour to manage her life, down to making dinner reservations and ordering plane tickets. Can you say identity theft? That, along with a spectacular accident touched off by blackberry removal, sends Bernadette’s fragile house of cards crashing down.
There are enough delicious secondary characters in this book to populate a television series … one staffed by writers with a gift for character sketch and perfect comic timing. Where to begin? How about Ollie-O, the consultant hired by Galer Street to turn it from a second-tier private school with “Subaru parents” to membership in the “First Choice Cluster,” e.g., Lakeside — “let me rock it straight: the first stop on this crazy train is Kindergarten Junction, and nobody gets off until it pulls into Harvard Station,” goes one Ollie memo. There’s Audrey, the compulsive parent organizer who cannot abide Bernadette’s slacker attitude toward volunteerism. And Soo-Lin, Elgin’s personal assistant, whose loyalty to Microsoft and her boss sends her down a different life path.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” is achingly funny and perfectly timed until Bernadette actually flees her troubles. Much of the latter part of the book is set on an Antarctic cruise, and the story becomes somewhat disconnected from Semple’s mother lode of inspiration — Seattle and our craving for, yes, excellence.
In some ways “Bernadette” validates the same culture it so uproariously sends up. Bee, who survived a devastating childhood heart condition, is admitted early decision to Choate Rosemary (the school Semple attended). This emotionally precocious eighth grader profoundly understands her parents (!), and her insight gives her license to comment on their shortcomings (think “Modern Family”). The adults yearn for some version of validation — money, status, or just credit for doing the “right” thing. In this rarefied air, I found myself bonding with Soo-Lin. “I’m just a Seattle-born secretary,” she says, as if that’s not good enough.
Still, you end up caring for this motley if well-heeled crew. Semple has a big heart, and possesses that rare ability to skewer, dissect and empathize with her targets, all at the same time. There’s a reason A-list novelists like Jonathan Franzen and Kate Atkinson endorsed this book. Read “Bernadette,” laugh loud and long, then take a good look in the mirror.
Mary Ann Gwinn: firstname.lastname@example.org