Despising Seattle

Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette Has a Passive-Aggressive Relationship with This City, Just Like You

By Marisa Yamasaki

Originally published in the December 2014 issue.

When Maria Semple’s novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette was published in 2012, I didn’t bother to read it.  What value could I find in a book famous only for complaining about Seattle?  Yet in a recent Seattle Times article, book editor Mary Ann Gwinn mentioned the novel as a possible entry in a Washington State literary time capsule.  I thought, “If Semple’s novel is a candidate to be preserved for future generations, perhaps it is worth reading.”  So I gave Bernadette a try, and found that it is far from a classic, but its wittiness and wild rants offer a unique look at Seattle.

Bernadette Fox, a brilliant Californian architect, moves to Seattle after her masterpiece project is destroyed.  But she is miserable in her new city, living amongst people who don’t understand her and whom she never tries to understand.  After years of channeling her pent-up energy into criticizing Seattleites, she vanishes, leaving her teenage daughter, Bee, to discover where she went.

Eighth grader Bee draws on letters and documents to understand why her mother has disappeared, delving into Bernadette’s past to search for clues.  Ultimately, she is guided by faith in her mother, whom she understands better than anyone else.

Bernadette’s character pops off the page from the moment she is introduced.  She is cynical, quirky, and more than a little removed from reality, but she paints a vivid picture of the world as she sees it.  Her honesty made me embrace her perspective and understand why she hates the city that has come to represent the barriers to her dreams.  On her website, Semple explains that Bernadette is drawn from personal experience.  Semple left California at a major turning point in her life, and when she hit roadblocks in her writing career, she “blamed Seattle.”  But after talking to an old friend, she explained in a comment about Bernadette on her website, “I suddenly realized: this toxic brew of self-pity, defensiveness, love, and artistic paralysis I had become, while humiliating to admit to, was actually kind of funny. The character of Bernadette popped into my head, fully formed.”  No wonder Bernadette’s personality and perspective are so genuine: they are taken from Semple’s own experiences.

Robbed of her artistic dreams, Bernadette focuses all of her energy into loathing Seattle.  Her complaints, which she inserts into every message and conversation, are far more detailed than the mere grumbles about the weather I had expected.  In fact, Bernadette hardly mentions the rain, ranting instead about obscure details of the city.  Some of her observations don’t seem like Seattle at all: do Seattleites really say “logy” all of the time?  Others, however are delightfully accurate: “[Chihuly glass sculptures] are the pigeons of Seattle.  They’re everywhere, and even if they don’t get in your way, you can’t help but build up a kind of antipathy toward them.”  How true!

Behind Bernadette’s lively fuming, however, the plot is choppy and implausible.  The book revolves around explaining Bernadette’s disappearance, but it lacks the vital suspense of a mystery.  Bee hardly has a chance to dig up clues when a trove of written correspondences is given to her, so she barely does any detective work until the last few chapters.  Bee then reveals the documents one by one in an irritating attempt to make up for the lack of mystery.  If she got them all at once, why does she keep them from the reader?

The novel also lacks the strong anchor of a central character.  Bee is the narrator, but her stories are fragmented and her presence is strangely absent during a key moment: Bernadette’s disappearance.  Is Bee frightened, angry, or confused when her mother goes missing?  The reader never knows, for Bee’s narration stops and is later picked up without explanation.  The reader is robbed of understanding Bee’s character in this crucial moment.

To further confuse the structure, the written messages that direct the plot read falsely.  A correspondence style worked in Dracula, but it doesn’t transfer well to the internet age.  How many people put extensive, direct-quote conversations in email messages?  Maybe quirky Bernadette.  But her analytical husband, her fellow parents – practically every notable character?  And why would people who live in the same city, whose children attend the same school, communicate everything in writing?  How fortunate that all of the important plot details were preserved in text, rather than mentioned face-to-face or over the phone.

Besides the structure of the novel, farfetched details and a narrow cast of characters made me do quite a bit of ranting of my own.  When Bee wants to take a vacation to Antarctica as a “reward” for perfect grades, why are her parents forced to say yes?  Surely a more moderate prize would be acceptable, but no, it’s Antarctica or nothing.  Also, If Bernadette so despises the overprotective parents whose influence permeates Bee’s school, why does she keep Bee there from kindergarten onwards?  Surely Bee is not so brilliant she only can function in an elite preparatory elementary school.  Seattle’s demographic, too, is poorly portrayed; Semple makes it seem as if every Seattleite is either a rich snob or a street person.  Elgin, Bernadette’s husband, is a stereotypical bicycle-riding, laptop-toting Microsoft programmer, but Semple fits him so snugly in his mold that his character barely develops over the course of the novel.  The other characters, Elgin’s Microsoft admin and the overprotective parents of Bee’s classmates, are all wealthy and self-preoccupied.  Bernadette must have made quite an effort to isolate herself if she has met no other types of people after eighteen years in Seattle.

Bernadette’s plot, details, and ending all suspend belief.  The result?  Surprisingly, a novel with whimsical charm.  While it lacks the strong framework and sophistication of a classic, its looseness makes Bee’s narration believable.  The frequent hyperbole and zany plot convey Bee’s youthful imagination, offering an enjoyable contrast to Bernadette.  Where’d You Go, Bernadette is not as impressive as other local novels, but perhaps it has earned a place in the literary time capsule.  After all, it offers a unique perspective on Seattle, a city that suffers from shortcomings, but has just as many virtues.  Semple would probably agree: she notes on her website that she now “loves living in Seattle.”  For an entertaining local read, try Where’d You Go, Bernadette, whose vivid details will make you take notice of the city around you.

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