What a complete hoot this book is. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially because the Computer Scientist, my brother, and family friends worked or still work at Microsoft. We lived in Seattle for five years and I can assure you that Maria Semple‘s send-ups are hilariously spot-on.
Semple satirizes (affectionately, I think) Seattle’s many recognizable quirks. The large population of the newly well-off. Geeky outdoorsy-ness. The weird juxtaposition of political correctness, a publicly professed creed of “niceness,” and nimbyism. The blackberries that cannot be defeated even when torn out with special equipment. The competitive private school culture, combined with a desire to keep kids “real.” The strange combination of wealth and consumptionism with DIY spirit and zealous affirmation of “groundedness.” And she seasons it all with cultural and geographic references too numerous to recount.
But I digress. Enjoyable as it was for me to recognize these things, the book is funny and smart whether you’ve been to Seattle or not. No matter where you live it would be hard not to laugh at Semple’s trenchant portrayal of dysfunctional families, social aspirations, and neighborhood feuding, made more public by modern technology.
Where’d You Go Bernadette is about a pair of eccentric geniuses: Bernadette Fox, a MacArthur genius architect whose masterwork was destroyed in L.A. twenty years earlier by a vindictive neighbor she’d clashed with and Elgin Branch, TED talk star, workoholic inventor geek pioneering mind-activated robotics at Microsoft. Bernadette and Elgin have one daughter, Bee, born with a heart defect but brilliant and about to go off to boarding school, as her parents both did.
Bee asks for a trip to Antarctica to celebrate. Bernadette’s unhappiness with Seattle, with the privileged ”gnats” as she calls the school mothers who don’t like her, and her social awkwardness come to a head. She hires a “virtual assistant” in India to handle the trip details and plots how to get out of going.
Meanwhile Elgin misinterprets his wife’s loopy behavior as either mental illness or drug addiction and plans an intervention. Several hilarious misunderstandings later, Bernadette disappears and Bee tries to find her. That final section of the novel, where Bee tells her version of things, is wonderful. It tempers the satire a bit with real emotional depth and the reveals the truth beneath the zaniness — this novel is a love story.
Every unhinged thing Bernadette does is grounded in her fierce love for Bee, who thrives because of it. Elgin and Bernadette have lost their way with each other but readers sense that beneath it all, they also have an unbreakable bond. And they both love their inner worlds, the private creative processes that makes them such brilliant and innovative people.
Semple’s assertion, it seems, is that people need to be who they are, and society — especially privileged society — beats down the very people it holds up as geniuses when they find themselves unable to conform. She also spotlights the everyday in-your-face rudeness we’ve come to accept. From entitled neighbors to pushy panhandlers to opinionated alpha-Moms, Bernadette can’t take it anymore; ironically that makes her part of the rudeness cycle.
But there’s redemption in this novel, and even nasty neighbor Audrey, Bernadette’s gnat nemesis, has a major change of heart. By the end of the book, much of the messiness is resolved, and you get a feeling things are going to work out. I love that it’s neat but not too neat — Semple let’s us come to our own conclusions.
Bee is just a terrific character — still a kid, precocious but never without the innocence and emotion of a real middle-school girl. And like many smart, mature kids, still very attached to the small rituals and touchstones of childhood, things the adults around her don’t necessarily see or appreciate. Few authors get “tweens” right and Semple does it perfectly, I think.
And I loved the form of this book, which is perfect for the story. Semple uses regular narrative, email, reports, presentations, faxes, transcripts — a melange of the material at-hand in her characters’ lives, like Bernadette’s architecture (her most famous work is a house made entirely of items sourced within 20 miles), like the former girls’ school partially converted into a residence where Bernadette, Elgin, & Bee live, like a community. There’s a very good reason for this hodge-podge which I won’t give away.
Seattle, Semple also reminds us, is not always as cloudy as you’d expect. Semple lets the best bits peek through. Again I think her specific city is just an example of all the hassles of modern life – get past the superficial, loud, overly-busy bits and you can make real connections.
Which after all is what the best books help us do.