I wanted to like this book, I really did. I read it because I once took a class in Seattle with the author, Maria Semple, and I thought she was great and so was the class (it was a workshop on humor writing). Semple has an impressive pedigree, what with sharpening her humor writing skills on sitcoms like Arrested Development. Plus, when I heard her talk this past fall at the Wordstock Literary Festival, I thought she was a badass, a funny badass.
But I never laughed once while reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I think the problem may have been that the humor was directed at a different age group than mine and that the portrait of Seattle that Semple painted (another reason I wanted to read this book: the setting is my old city) wasn’t anywhere near the Seattle I knew.
The book follows fifteen-year-old Bee, a precocious child of a Microsoft developer and a reclusive former architect (the book’s namesake) who moved to Seattle from L.A. Halfway through the story, mom Bernadette disappears, and Bee takes it upon herself to find out why. The story is told through a series of emails, letters, articles, and any number of other documents (meant to be the documents that Bee is sifting through in order to glean information about her mother’s disappearance), interspersed with Bee’s own narration. I’m not a fan of the epistolary novel because I don’t believe the things people have to say in their communications in order to advance the plot. I can’t sacrifice logic for the sake of a stylistic choice. For example, in many long emails, Bernadette relates action that includes dialogue, complete with quotation marks to break up the dialogue. I don’t think I’ve ever written an email to someone that included full dialogue. I just don’t buy it, and for that reason, it made it harder to care about the plot.
I like Bee. She is a great protagonist and the parts of the story that were told in a straightforward way through her voice were my favorite. I didn’t like Bernadette. I found her selfish and a bad parent. One thing that does interest me about Bernadette is that she’s not meant to be sympathetic, and I appreciate this. At Maria Semple’s talk at Wordstock, someone asked her why her female character was not more sympathetic since females are usually depicted in this way. She said that she never wanted Bernadette to be sympathetic and that it’s unfair that female characters are expected to be when male characters are not. I appreciated that a great deal because I too agree that it’s unfair that female protagonists are supposed to act a certain way in order for the readers to like them, but male characters can behave terribly and they’re simply viewed as an anti-hero.
When I read this book I felt like Semple wrote about a Seattle I never lived in. She is a Seattle resident (also an L.A. transplant), so I have to trust that she wrote from experience, but it felt more like she set a book in a rainy city and then peppered her narrative with key terms Seattle residents would recognize like Molly Moo’s ice cream and the glass artist Dale Chihuly. Admittedly, Semple wrote about the upscale Seattle world of Microsoft employees and Queen Anne families. My experience in Seattle was as a college student and post-grad, so I saw the Capitol Hill, bars, and music scene Seattle, but I still found her depiction of Seattle a bit unfair. It’s painted as this quaint, folksy town where people say “gal” and nobody cusses. I don’t think I’ve ever once heard someone say “gal” in Seattle. In the end, Semple and I clearly lived two different versions of Seattle. Her book takes on the outsider view of Seattle, whereas I feel I saw it as home–the big city to my small town, Central Washington upbringing. Seattle is no New York, but it’s not supposed to be. By the book’s close, Bernadette is a Seattle apologist, but I never felt that transition came naturally. Yes, I’m glad she came around, as I imagine Semple must have, but if you’re going to spend over two hundred pages tearing something apart, you have to do a bit more than throw in a paragraph at the end saying you changed your mind.
Overall, I would recommend this book to readers who want a fun, fast story. The plot hooked me and continued to surprise me up until the end. I think it’s more age-appropriate for readers in at least their thirties, and would be of much more interest to readers with children. They would probably appreciate the humor pulled from private school politics. You should probably be a fan of the epistolary novel as well, or at least be willing to suspend some belief in order for the style to work. Just don’t expect some sweet, maternal female lead who will make you feel warm and fuzzy. Bernadette is definitely not that character, and I think that may be what Semple did best: create a female anti-hero.