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

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.

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.

Just don’t count on Semple for consistency or for accuracy of observation. For instance, Bernadette, whose fierce gimlet eye for visual and social particulars is one of her carefully established hallmarks, sums up Seattle’s wealthy private-school girls as being happily indifferent to wearing trendy clothes or carrying cell phones. On what planet is the Seattle that Bernadette perceives here?

As the story rolls out we discover why a happily married architect who received a MacArthur "genius" grant and other major national awards became a misanthropic recluse. Other revelations include the unfolding of a dastardly international scheme fronted by Bernadette’s virtual assistant in India.

Finally, in the course of an uninterrupted travelogue through Antarctica that celebrates the continent’s spectacular beauty, Bee discovers what happened to her mother before and after she vanished from home. Bee's journey through the region of penguins and icebergs is thoroughly engaging. In part it’s because here the story stops resembling mortgage-backed securities that slice-and-dice bundles of dubious deals into tranches. The girl's warm, wry voice and perspective hold the chapter together and give it power.

The last word isn't Bee's, though. At the very end of the story, which reveals the letter Bernadette wrote her daughter before disappearing (a letter that finds its intended recipient too late, as in Victorian romances), Bernadette kisses and makes up with the Seattle she has loathed. Even the weather has suddenly become wonderful to her. The city's sky “felt like God had lowered a silk parachute over us. Every feeling I ever knew was up in that sky. Twinkling joyous sunlight; airy, giggling cloud wisps; blinding columns of sun. Orbs of gold, pink, flesh, utterly cheesy in their luminosity.”

Associating “utterly cheesy” with a suddenly twinkling, joyous, luminous new sweetness in sour Bernadette is pretty daring. Or maybe merely disarming — a way of pushing satire aside to bring famously book-buying Seattleites back into the author's arms while creating a happy ending for closure lovers everywhere. Semple’s a savvy writer.

Maria Semple reads from Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Little, Brown & Company, $25.99) at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle on August 14; at Village Books in Bellingham on August 21 (with Laurie Frankel); at Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, WA, on August 22; at Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge Island on August 23 (with Laurie Frankel); and at Vashon Bookshop on Vashon Island August 24. 


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