Books & Talks

Book Review: Maria Semple's 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette'

The former 'Arrested Development' writer sends up Seattle in her new novel.

By Laura Dannen August 8, 2012

No transplant has ever eviscerated our city with the elan of Maria Semple, a former Arrested Development writer who recently relocated here from Los Angeles and turned to fiction to process her culture shock. In five particularly glorious pages of her new novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Little, Brown and Co, August 14), Semple manages to send up Seattle's five-way intersections, slow drivers, hairstyles (there are two: "short gray hair and long gray hair"), homeless problem, and Microsoft, not to mention a whole paragraph on Seattle slang.

“Greetings from sunny Seattle, where women are gals, people are folks, a little bit is a skosh, if you’re tired you’re logy, if something is slightly off it’s hinky, you can’t sit Indian style but you can sit crisscross applesauce, when the sun comes out it’s never called sun but always sunshine, boyfriends and girlfriends are partners, nobody swears but someone occasionally might drop the F-bomb, you’re allowed to cough but only into your elbow, and any request, reasonable or unreasonable, is met with no worries.” 

In addition to being a gleeful satire of the Emerald City (and people who call it "the Emerald City"), Where’d You Go, Bernadette is also an addictive black comedy about family dysfunction with characters as wild and misanthropic as they are real. The titular Bernadette is a mother to 15-year-old Bee and wife to a tech genius who's snatched up by Microsoft; but her "intensifying allergy to Seattle" compels her to outsource her daily errands to a virtual assistant in India, including the plans for a family vacation to Antarctica. Trips to the South Pole? Not a great idea for someone who can barely leave the house.

The story is told through email exchanges, letters, memos, FBI files, police reports—an epistolary novel, though that's a deadly word to use to sell a book (watch the video below)—which allows Semple to do what she does best: write razor-sharp dialogue. At its best, Where'd You Go, Bernadette not only pokes fun at the city but at the biases of transplants—and if there's anything we all need a lesson in, it's how to laugh at ourselves. Semple's the best kind of teacher.

Maria Semple
Aug 14, Elliott Bay Book Company
Aug 23, Eagle Harbor Book Company, Bainbridge Island

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