Pop quiz: At which major company do you become a quasi-rock star after giving the fourth-most-watched Ted Talk of all time?
Answer: You’ll find it in Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”
Possible: Your rock-star status at said company may or may not be noticed by a certain Mr. Gates.
I’d love to share with you a book that made me laugh, smile, think, and feel warm fuzzies in my heart during my last few weeks in the rain-encumbered city known as Seattle. It was actually the perfect book to finish our too-short Washington tour, as it is set in the Emerald City itself, and pokes endless fun at the chard-eating, green-smoothie drinking, coffee-guzzling town that the Hungry Hero and I have called home for the last year.
Written by a former writer of Arrested Development (a show that the Hungry Hero lovingly introduced me to while snowed in one weekend in Seoul), “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” is a satire of epic proportions. If there was a Real Housewives of Seattle, some of the characters in this book absolutely would be in it (possibly with the tagline “My children don’t just go to Galer School. I am Galer Street School.” You must say it in a throaty voice to get the full effect). Not Bernadette, of course. She is way too cool for those parent-association gnats (as she calls them).
California transplant, slightly unstable former architect and creative soul Bernadette stars at the center of this fun, timely novel. Bernadette hates Seattle, but has moved with her husband (Microsoft rock-star Elgin), and is making the best of it, out of a deep love for her daughter Bee.
And by “making the best of it,” I mean she’s hired a virtual assistant from India to ensure she never has to leave the house.
The problem is that Bee, a smart student and a very Hungry Heroine in her own right, has aspirations of a trip to Antarctica following her perfect school grades. The trip sets in motion the events of the book, which are helped along by Bernadette’s anxiety, and a few (hilarious) run-ins with Bee’s school’s Parent Association (yes, that’s Parent Association with a Capital P and Capital A).
Fun Fact: Wild blackberry bushes have some serious roots. Removing them from your neighbor’s yard prior to a tasteful parent’s association brunch is not recommended. I’ll save you the specifics, but know that I actually read this scene twice. It was that funny.
Semple’s comedy-writing chops do not disappoint.
Hilarity aside, there was a small element of sadness for me in this book. Bernadette’s creative soul is like a blooming flower, crushed before it had time to blossom. Her sharp wit, observant eye, and unconditional love for her daughter make you root for her. From the reader’s perspective (especially those readers like myself who pretend to diagnose their characters), it seems that her agoraphobia, manic rants, and generally high anxiety may have been caused by the events of her past.
Despite some of these darker themes, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” has a distinct air of self-discovery, acceptance, and unconditional love. Even the Real Housewives-esque characters show some major development throughout the novel. As the events of Bernadette’s disappearance unfold, the novel takes on a detective-story feel, as Bee searches to find her mom, and rebuild her family.
The structure of this story makes it intensely readable, and made the satirical elements more pronounced. It weaves together e-mails, letters, invoices, newsletters, lectures, and even FBI documents to tell Bernadette’s story. It can be quite a challenge to build suspense with this kind of structure, but Temple manages to do it effortlessly: I couldn’t put the book down.
Read this one if:
You are interested in Seattle culture. Seattle natives and Washington-dwellers will recognize many of the iconic elements in this book, including a humorous space-needle brunch in which Bernadette storms out angrily due to religious writings added to Bee’s revolving birthday card. Hilarious and absolutely relatable for anyone who has had the pleasure of dining at the SkyCity restaurant.
You like books with interesting structure. Little pieces of Bernadette’s story are slowly wound together through a variety of documents. The story emerges with the details. And the details make the story shine.
You’d like a light-hearted read with a bit of dark humor. Chick-lit? Maybe. But I think this book has some serious substance along with its comedy-writing roots, and I thoroughly enjoyed every page!
Wishing everyone a happy, healthy holiday season! What’s on your book wish-list this year?
[As always, this post is not sponsored and all of my books are library-rented or purchased by me. I am not affiliated with any publisher or author nor do I accept free products. Just love to share… reader to reader!]