Smacking down Seattle overachievers

Maria Semple’s breezy new novel, "Where’d You Go, Bernadette," satirizes Seattle's upscale lifestyle in a headlong romp that's short on plausibility.
Westlake Center, with a flash mob.

Westlake Center, with a flash mob. Camknows/Flickr

Maria Semple's 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette'

Maria Semple's 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' Little, Brown & Company

Author Maria Semple

Author Maria Semple Courtesy of Little, Brown & Company

Genius architect Bernadette Fox runs away from the family home in the adopted city she hates, which happens to be Seattle. Her husband, Elgin Branch, a genius Microsoftie hot on the trail of a technology that will allow people to manipulate objects simply by thinking about them, believes she has committed suicide. Bee, their brilliant 15-year-old daughter, disagrees. She embarks on a search for her mother that eventually takes her and her father all the way to Antarctica.

Bee collects clues to her mother’s motives and whereabouts from an FBI dossier filled with copies of email messages by the dozen. With these and other documents, including faxes, bills, a Christmas letter, a police report, and memos from Bee’s private Galer Street School, the girl constructs a fairly comprehensive picture of her mother’s situation at the time of her disappearance. Author and screenwriter Maria Semple constructs the novel out of the same hodgepodge of texts.

Bee’s determination to connect the dots holds the centrifugal narrative together. Her mind is like a sturdy storyboard for the major film that some reviewers believe Where'd You Go, Bernadette is destined to become. Time’s Lev Grossman writes, “Think The Royal Tenenbaums in Seattle.”

Readers who fear that the habit of emailing will destroy the human skills necessary for writing anything longer or more syntactically complex than tweets may be reassured by Bernadette's emails to her virtual assistant in India (hired because Bernadette hates dealing with human beings face to face). Her messages easily fill pages of text, no matter how rushed she is at the moment. Almost all her emails deploy extended quoted dialogue, elaborated backstory, and detailed settings, at a leisurely pace. For a woman characterized as misanthropic and antisocial, Bernadette is quite the chatterbox.

Garrulous writing runs in the family — and, apparently, in the community. The request Elgin writes to a psychiatrist, asking her to commit his wife involuntarily to a mental hospital, summarizes 25 years of their marriage in languorous detail. His letter to Choate School about his daughter after she’s accepted there is equally expansive. The bronze medal for improbable copiousness goes to emails about Bernadette that circulate among certain Galer Street moms who hate her.

The tell-all habits of Semple’s characters move the plot along. If you’re willing to suspend disbelief in a tale largely unhampered by the demands of plausibility and to embrace characters whose voices (except the teenager’s) all sound pretty much the same, you’ll relish this headlong romp.

Semple mocks whatever comes into view, from hyper-controlling parents and private-school mission statements to psychiatric interventions, pleasure cruises, TEDTalks, and the startling number of Westlake Center beggars in a city of millionaires that calls itself compassionate. It’s too bad the author doesn’t also aim a self-aware gibe at novels in which a whole family is characterized as exceptionally intelligent and creative. The joke would go well with her Galer Street School’s self-esteem-boosting spectrum of grades (S = Surpasses Excellence, A = Achieves Excellence, W = Working towards Excellence). But even if unintended, a whiff of self-satirizing potential in the dazzling giftedness of every Branch of the family lingers.

This underscores the difficulty, today, of writing satire. Who can distinguish realistically rendered from intentionally exaggerated characters and customs when (as the literary critic Hugh Kenner observed half a century ago in The Counterfeiters) lifelike descriptions of reality can’t help sounding like parody? Semple doesn't appear to struggle with the problem. Until the final chapters, the breezes of infinite jest carry the book along no matter what its focus may be at the moment.

Many readers are sure to be drawn to the gossipy insider glimpses of Microsoft’s workaholic culture and to Bernadette’s extravagant denunciations of Seattle’s signature quirks. Names that might catch the eye of Seattle audiences in particular (Pike Place Market, See’s Candies, Lakeside School, Tom Douglas, Dale Chihuly, Paul Allen’s yacht, Cliff Mass, even Washington state’s Involuntary Treatment Act) are dropped throughout the narrative like product-placement cans of Coke in films.


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