I just finished reading the newly published Where’d You Go, Bernadette. It’s at least the fifth novel to appear this year set in Seattle. (The others are the racy Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James and the historically evocative Truth Like The Sun by Jim Lynch.)
Bernadette is written by Maria Semple. Like me, she is a transplant from the Los Angeles area, but a few years before I became New To Seattle. Her website makes a point of saying, “Maria loves living in Seattle–thank you for asking.”
You might not think that from her book.
The cleverly written and structured contemporary novel about a dysfunctional family living on Queen Anne Hill, a politically correct neighborhood, is a massive send-up of Seattle and especially its politically correct population. Semple spares few targets as she uses the words, thoughts or actions of various characters to score points.
The Bernadette in the title is Bernadette Fox, a Princeton-educated architect who won a MacArthur genius award in Los Angeles before flaming out and moving to Seattle after her husband, Elgin Branch, got a high job at Microsoft. For a residence, they bought a decrepit building that once housed a school.
Without giving away too much of the plot, Bernadette eventually disappears from Seattle and goes a long way away after developing what her husband calls “an irrational hatred of an entire city” voiced “in the form of wild rants that required no less than an hour to fully express.” Topics include Seattle’s large number of five-way traffic intersections and street people. One passage in the voice of Fox describes the “eight-step process” required to park a car on a street in downtown Seattle, including finding “a ticket dispenser that isn’t menacingly encircled by a stinky mosaic of beggars/bums/junkies/runaways … (who) all have shivering dogs.”
The street scene is a recurring theme. “Seattle. I’ve never seen a city so overrun with runaways, drug addicts and bums,’ Fox writes a former colleague. “Pike Place Market: they’re everywhere. Pioneer Square: teeming with them. The flagship Nordstrom: have to step over them on the way in. The first Starbucks: one of them hogging the milk counter because he’s sprinkling free cinnamon on his head.”
Fox attributes this to Seattle’s liberal image as a “compassionate city” more interested in, say, talking about the root of gang violence rather than punishing its actual perpetrators. One culprit is the city’s Mike McGinn-like chief executive, unnamed in the book but described as “the f—ing mayor.”
The obsession of Seattleites with their legendarily and persistently wet weather is fully laid out. “Every time it rains, and you have to interact with someone, here’s what they’ll say: ‘Can you believe the weather?’ And you want to say, ‘Actually, I can believe the weather. What I can’t believe us that I’m actually having a conversation about the weather.’ ”
There are references to the polite-but-not-warm personal interaction phenomenon known as the Seattle Freeze, the “young and scruffy” workers at the flagship REI store, bad Seattle driving habits, mudslides and an assertion that only tourists eat at the revolving Space Needle restaurant because it’s too expensive for the locals.
Bee, Fox and Branch’s precocious middle-school daughter, in whose person much of the novel is written, attends the private, struggling Galer Street School–Galer Street is a main drag through Queen Anne–where failing students get not an F but a W for “working toward excellence.” Her parents plan to send her to fancy Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut–a diss, it seems, of Seattle’s tony Lakeside School, alma mater of Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen. (It may or may not be relevant, but author Semple, a scriptwriter by trade, also attended Choate.)
There’s a fair amount of material about the culture at Microsoft (headquartered in the Seattle suburb of Redmond)–little of it flattering. “You’ve never seen a more acronym-happy company,” Fox writes. Since every house already has a PC, the firm’s objective now is “world domination.” Workaholic employees are obsessed about the possibility of getting laid off and paranoid about all kinds of other things. Writes Fox, “Everyone there is lusting for an iPhone but there’s a rumor that if Ballmer sees you with one, you’ll get s–tcanned. Even though this hasn’t been proven, it hasn’t been disproven either.”
Fifty Shades of Grey could have been set anywhere; nothing in the plot inevitably ties it to Seattle. Truth Like The Sun deals with the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and municipal corruption but is lighter on social commentary. Bernadette, however, seemingly dishes it out on almost every page.
Of course, it’s fiction. Right?
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