Let’s face it, the Pacific Northwest is easy to make fun of. We are the low-hanging fruit of regional comic relief. Where else in our great country do millionaires choose to drive Subarus? To add to the already popular satire of shows like “Portlandia” and our very own Pemco commercials comes Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is the story of sardonic Bernadette Fox, a once-upon-a-time architect of the iconized “Twenty Mile House,” touted as the first “green” house before going “green” was all the rage, as well as the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant. The story explores her mysterious disappearance, weaving its way between written letters, emails, a psychiatrist’s notes, and police reports, reminding us that life is a patchwork of differing versions of reality.
Semple’s novel (rumored to have already sold the movie rights), is set mainly in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood, but we follow the Foxes through the concrete jungle of Los Angeles and the glacial landscape of Antarctica along the way.
Semple populates the story with the tried and true Northwest stereotypes of unkempt women with either “short gray hair [or] long gray hair” and overeducated, politically correct granolas. “Blessings, and help yourself to some chard, Audrey,” is the signature line of an email addressing a “blackberry abatement specialist.”
The school where Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, attends is described as being “so ridiculous that it goes beyond PC and turns back in on itself to the point where fourth graders are actually having to debate the advantages of China’s genocide of the Tibetan people.” A learning community caricature, Galer Street School stands in for that parallel universe of academia, where topics (even as heart-rending as genocide) can be overanalyzed to the point of meaninglessness, disconnecting it from reality in the process.
Semple also sheds light on Seattle-specific gripes, such as how difficult it is to make friends in Seattle, known sometimes as the “Seattle freeze,” as well as our obsession with TED Talks and barefoot millionaire tech execs as exemplified in the main character’s husband, Elgin Fox.
Underlining the differences between a life purchased and a life built, Bernadette and husband Elgin move to Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood after their Los Angeles home, the Twenty Mile House, is tragically destroyed by their evil next-door neighbor, a gaudy and money-grubbing movie producer.
The home they inhabit in Queen Anne is an historic landmark – a dilapidated girl’s school – into which Bernadette hopes to pour her creative genius. However, rather than becoming another architectural marvel like the Twenty Mile House, their new Seattle home becomes a menacing presence, threatening to sink the little family into the mold and sogginess of the hill at any moment. The old girl’s school represents the ruins of what has become of Bernadette’s life: an artist not creating art, wallowing in self-pity.
They head north for Elgin’s job as a Microsoft executive and eventual TED Talk superstar, and for her part, Bernadette raises daughter Bee, a bright tween (when we are first introduced to her) and one of the novel’s main narrators.
Bee’s school is populated with neurotic helicopter parents from whom reclusive Bernadette does everything in her power to distance herself. Ironically, Bernadette constantly contrasts her own authentic (read cynical) version of reality to the silly, pointless whining of the Galer Street parents, whom she calls “the Gnats.” Her endless frustrations with Bee’s school as well as their crumbling home become the impetus for Bernadette’s eventual disappearance, an outward symbol of her inner loss of self.
The novel’s construction as an array of emails, faxes, and official documents from various characters, breaks the story into fast-paced, humorous little nuggets. Because we are able to see the story (and by default Seattle) through so many different lenses, it has the effect of providing the novel with three-dimensional depth, even when the characters are sometimes only two-dimensional stereotypes.
The format does well at mirroring the novel’s theme that everything is a construction. From homes and freeway systems to personas and by extension the communities they occupy, there is no consensus as to what constitutes “true” reality or authenticity.
In this respect, Seattle is the perfect setting for this theme. The TED Talk that brought fame to Elgin was about a project, Samantha 2, which allowed a Band-Aid-sized microchip to control objects on the other side of the room when the chip is adhered to one’s forehead. Originally, it was said to be developed for veterans with prosthetic limbs. Eventually, it was turned into a device for the Xbox.
In one document/chapter by a Dr. Kurtz – a psychiatrist summoned by Elgin to evaluate his wife whom he wants committed to an in-patient mental facility – the doctor calls the device that Elgin invented, “an extreme version of what I find an alarming trend toward reality avoidance.” If Kurtz is an ironic nod to the insane colonel of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, then it is accomplished with a deft touch.
The different interpretations of reality and worldviews are the central conflict of the novel. While most reviews have described the story as solely a funny and entertaining read (even while the ending borders on the absurd), the themes it tackles ask the reader to engage it with a critical eye.
Through the comedy and irony of Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, we recognize versions of ourselves that may have been too threatening in a different form.
We live in a time of access to millions of versions of reality with a stroke of a key. We can either pretend that our construction is what’s best for everyone, or we can step back and laugh at the complexity. Where’d You Go, Bernadette, allows us to do just that.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. 330 pp. Little, Brown. $25.99.