bernadetteWhere’d You Go, Bernadette

  • Author:  Maria Semple
  • Published:  2012
  • Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company
  • Pages:  326
  • First Lines:  “The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, ‘What’s important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.’”
  • Last Lines:  “Say yes.  And know I’m always, Mom.”
  • Film:  none
  • First Read:  Spring 2014

Old fashioned letter writing might be disappearing but the epistolary novel is still surviving.  In fact, the two novels over the last few years that I have enjoyed more than almost any other have both been epistolary novels.  (One of them, Dear Committee Members, is even still keeping letters alive, though not the kind of letters you necessarily want to read.)  Where’d You Go, Bernadette isn’t a complete epistolary novel – our valiant teenager, Bee, provides us with linking narratives that help explain some of the things.  But that’s necessary in this case, because she helps us sort through some of the e-mails, memos, faxes and vital documents that make up one of the funniest books of the last decade.

I discovered this novel the way I used to be able to discover such things – it kept getting recommended by everyone at the Booksmith to everyone else.  It seemed that everyone had to read it and once we did, we became part of the cult pushing it on new people.  But, more than most of the booksellers there, I had a special understanding about this book because I’d spent a lot of time in Seattle over the years.

I lived in Portland for 13 years.  During that time, I spent a lot of time headed up to Seattle because, in spite of actually living in Portland, I viewed it in kind of the same way Dan Savage did (“Seattle’s a hilly, damp place with a lot of water and trees.  Portland’s a hilly, damp place with a lot of water and trees.  Portland and Seattle both have Pioneer Squares, Hamburger Marys, homeless street punks, and huge bookstores.  Why would anyone who lives in Seattle vacation in Portland?”  (The Kid, p 5))  I viewed Portland as the less exciting little brother and preferred the bigger city when I could.  But that wasn’t quite accurate.  Portland and Seattle are both quite extraordinarily strange in different ways.  If you watch Portlandia, you have an idea of Portland.  That song that opened the show on the pilot pretty much summed it up.  I did see the Jim Rome Circus in Portland, you can stick a bird on something and call it art and it is most definitely where young people go to retire.  But Seattle, well, that’s the Tech world of Microsoft and Amazon, of crazed parents trying to push their children to success, where you couldn’t possibly notice if everyone around you is weird because you’re too plugged into your devices to bother with human interaction.  This is the world that Where’d You Go, Bernadette takes to town and completely shreds.

I honestly don’t want to write too much about what happens in the book because you really should treasure it for yourself.  But it’s the kind of world where it’s important that one of the main characters gave the 4th most watched TED talk (for me, the person who isn’t on Facebook or Twitter and writes this blog as an outlet for creativity rather than a social media device, I had never heard of a TED talk and didn’t realize it was a real thing when I was first reading the book).  On the first page, when we get Bee Branch’s 8th grade report card, the grading system alone lets us know what kind of world we have entered: “S: Surpasses Excellence.  A: Achieves Excellence.  W: Working Towards Excellence.”

What this book gives you is a mother who is incapable of human interaction, a father who seems to have forgotten that other humans do interact and a truly amazing teenage girl who is bright and witty and damn motivated.  We have the disaster of blackberry bushes (if you’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest you know how invasive they are), the horror of parents who are blind to their children’s faults while focusing on everyone else’s and the kind of world where an official communication from the FBI ends with “We all love your TEDTalk.”