Books

No Place Like Home

Maria Semple's New Novel Is About Loathing Seattle

Seattle is an acquired taste. Most of us have friends who moved here and didn't even make it a year—they just can't let go of the months of clouds, the wishy-washy mincing dance of a flock of Seattleites around an open bus door, the hours of discussions before any action can be taken. The force that moves the plot of Maria Semple's new novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette (Little, Brown, $25.99), is Bernadette Fox's hatred of Seattle. A MacArthur "Genius"–winning architect from Los Angeles whose best work is years behind her, Fox moved here because her husband, Elgin Branch, is overseeing the kind of tech project at Microsoft that could, iPhone-like, shift the cultural landscape forever.

And boy does Fox hate it here in the "dreary upper-left corner." She hates that her husband loves it so much, has become a "bike-riding, Subaru-driving, Keen-wearing alter ego" of his old self. She seethes over the five-way intersections and bucolic drivers, and the simple fact that she lives in a state that borders Idaho. She rages against the homeless people with a snotty, entitled air of wealth ("Why does every beggar have a pit bull?"). She detests Microsoft's creepily aimless culture of world domination. It's gotten so bad that she's practically become a shut-in, secretly acquiring a virtual personal assistant named Manjula to perform all her leaving-the-house duties.

In fact, there's only one place Fox hates more than Seattle. As she writes to Manjula, "Of the million reasons I don't want to go to Antarctica, the main one is that it will require me to leave the house." Fox is facing down a trip to Antarctica because she has promised her daughter, Bee, a trip there if she gets perfect grades. (Like most of Semple's characters, Branch and Fox are what Kurt Vonnegut used to refer to as "fabulously well-to-do.") Rather than going through with the trip—and because her husband is growing increasingly suspicious of her sanity—Fox up and disappears.

Those who have met Semple know that when she moved to Seattle from Los Angeles a few years ago, she was none too thrilled with her new home. She wasn't in love with Los Angeles, where she wrote for TV comedies like Arrested Development and Mad About You, but Seattle's lackadaisical pace inspired a few rants that sound not dissimilar from some of Fox's observations. This personal touch helps make Bernadette even funnier than Semple's debut comic novel, This One Is Mine.

Bernadette is more ambitious, too. It's structured as a patchwork epistolary novel, a compilation of e-mails, letters, and documents sent around a small circle of friends, nemeses, and acquaintances of Fox's, including the terribly self-centered clique of mothers at Bee's private school. You quickly realize that Bee is assembling all the information she can find in order to piece together the reasons behind her mother's disappearance. Bee seems like a precocious kid of the sort common to literary fiction, but there are some nice flourishes of realism spread throughout—her annoyance that her mother likes the Beatles as much as she does, for one—to keep her grounded.

The book stumbles a bit in the middle as it transitions from a scathing anti-Seattle manifesto into a family drama with comic undertones. But once the gears have finished their grinding and the shuddering subsides, Semple eases into her strongest work yet, allowing her characters to change in a way that suits the story, and not just shooting for an easy punch line or a sharply worded barb. In the end, with its big heart set on acceptance, Bernadette feels something like coming home. recommended

 

Comments (34) RSS

Newest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
34
Grow up as this is fiction. The reason Seattleites can not laugh about themselves is that they have a superiority attitude based on truly nothing. Everyone and every place has pluses and minuses, that includes YOU, ME and every place we have ever lived or visited.

Grown ups are not looking for Utopia!
Posted by Helen Nancy on March 21, 2013 at 2:00 PM · Report this
biffp 33
@22, you're an example of what the author complains about in the book. Get a fucking life.
Posted by biffp on January 2, 2013 at 12:52 PM · Report this
Cascadian Bacon 32
Go the fuck back to LA bitch, take your shitty attitude with you.
Posted by Cascadian Bacon on September 19, 2012 at 5:45 PM · Report this
McJulie 31
Nobody will ever see this, but I may have found an answer to the LA density paradox: http://www.uctc.net/acces/37/access37_sp…

In brief, LA has "dense sprawl" -- an even distribution of moderately high density over a large area, so that
it suffers from many of the problems that accompany high population density, including extreme traffic congestion and poor air quality; but lacks many of the benefits that typically accompany more traditional versions of dense urban areas, including fast and effective public transit and a core with vibrant street life.


Which fits my on-the-ground impression exactly.
Posted by McJulie on September 19, 2012 at 4:35 PM · Report this
30
I fully agree about the lack of sidewalks in certain neighborhoods. As a dedicated pedestrian, this just infuriates me to no end. It's as if they WANT you to buy a car and contribute to the local carbon footprint.

Idiot, the neighborhoods without sidewalks are outlying ones where you'd need a car anyway. And if you're so interesting in reducing the carbon footprint, you'd be lobbying against Seattle's ban on plastic grocery bags.
Posted by Mister G on August 18, 2012 at 6:14 PM · Report this
29
Well, Paul, now I suspect that you're just a shill for the publishers. You're not practicing full disclosure here and that could be construed as false and misleading advertising.

Had I bought this book based on your review and then later discovered that the author "can't imagine living anywhere else" because she loves it here, I would have felt deceived, cheated... flim-flammed by your review.

So, your argument that "not every piece of information fits in every piece of writing" is, in this particular case, a sorry and weak defense.

@28 -- I fully agree about the lack of sidewalks in certain neighborhoods. As a dedicated pedestrian, this just infuriates me to no end. It's as if they WANT you to buy a car and contribute to the local carbon footprint.
Posted by EdGrimley on August 17, 2012 at 12:35 PM · Report this
28
As a former Seattle-ite and now Angeleno of 8 years, I'd have to agree with @13.

Pockets of Los Angeles are extremely walkable and have quite a bit of pedestrian traffic (downtown Santa Monica, Brentwood, Larchmont, Sherman Oaks, etc). The only places in Seattle I thought compared in terms of pedestrians were Pioneer Square (though a different kind of pedestrians) and maybe Belltown on a Saturday night.

What gets me the most though whenever I return to Seattle is... where are the sidewalks (in residential neighborhoods)? Am I the only one taken aback by this?
Posted by johnmatthews on August 17, 2012 at 9:22 AM · Report this
Paul Constant 27
Dear EdGrimley:

You sent a longer e-mail to The Stranger making basically the same point and I responded in more detail via e-mail. But in short:

1. I've talked to Semple a whole lot. That's why I knew she hated it here--because I've encountered her at readings, I've seen her read a bunch of times, and we've both attended other events, too.

2. The Times piece was written a week after my review (and it even refers to my review--swoon--as a "semiofficial channel" through which Seattle has responded to the book) and so it's in part a response, a conversation with my review. And:

3. The Times piece was a profile. This is a book review. Not every piece of information fits in every piece of writing. The fact that Semple likes it here now (which I did, in fact, know) has nothing to do with my review.

I think that addresses your points. If not, let me know.
Posted by Paul Constant http://https://twitter.com/paulconstant on August 16, 2012 at 10:20 PM · Report this
26
From yesterday's New York Times Books section comes a quote by the author about her present feelings toward Seattle:
[By the time she finished the first draft of the book], "I was starting to like a lot of things about Seattle,” she said. “The chill was melting and I realized I was growing out of this phase I was in. Now I love it here and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Next time, try to interview the author, Paul.
Posted by EdGrimley on August 16, 2012 at 3:57 PM · Report this
McJulie 25
@17 LA might be densely populated, but it never feels that way. And no, I am not talking about a single street corner. I'm from SoCal and have family in LA. I've spent a lot of time there in many different parts of the city, both on foot and in a car. I'm always shocked by how empty the streets feel, given that I know, in numbers, how many people live in LA. I can never figure it out.

Maybe Angelenos just spend a lot of time indoors.
Posted by McJulie on August 14, 2012 at 11:51 PM · Report this
24
Seattle isn't as special or as interesting as many of the people who live here seem to think it is. Yeah, so it's the cloudiest big city. Phoenix is the sunniest. And tied with Miami for the hottest, depending on how you measure it. Minneapolis and Milwaukee are the coldest.

Maybe Seattle is the most introspective, and would be tied with New York for the most neurotic. It would certainly be a strong contender in the laughable hypocrisy category, and would give any Southern town a run for the money in the phoniness derby.

But interesting or special? Worth a whole book? Nah.

Posted by Mister G on August 14, 2012 at 8:15 PM · Report this
Fnarf 23
@21, yes and no -- we are at a different stage of development. Our downtown is much more important than LA's is, relatively speaking, but that's because the regional centers haven't grown up enough. But they're there, and they're starting to. You've got downtown Bellevue, you've got the Microsoft campus, you've got Factoria, Southcenter, and a few other places -- oh, Adobe in Fremont is a mini-center, and the UW. There are smaller ones in all of the smaller traditional downtowns, as well -- Tacoma, Everett, Renton, Kent, Auburn, etc. And of course Boeing is "centered" in pretty remote places far from downtown.

I dunno, I'd have to look at statistics -- job totals, downtown as a percentage of region as a whole, for both cities. I would guess that Seattle is much higher, because Seattle's downtown is almost as big as LA's, but LA is a vastly larger place, but that's a guess.

But that's where we're headed. Almost all job growth is outside of downtown now, and the housing growth continues to spread out and out and out -- in exactly the same unsustainable sprawl ways that LA did, decades ago. So much for planning!

In terms of people, not jobs, again the development of areas here is too recent to spot yet. If you redid that map you sent me with different colors for different ethnicities, maybe better patterns would appear. A similar map of LA, though, showing just the Big Four (white, black, Asian, Latino) shows clear divisions. Complex ones, because it's not so much single-race neighborhoods as it is different combos -- white, Latino, white+Latino, white+Asian, Asian+Latino, black+Latino, black+Asian, and the three- or four-way mix neighborhoods, like Sawtelle (white+Latino+Asian) or Palms (white+Latino+Asian+black). We have some neighborhoods that have developed durable character -- all of North Seattle is white, Rainier Valley is extremely diverse, so is Crossroads, White Center is Latino, parts of the Eastside have good South Asian character. But a lot of the clusters are tiny, like the Koreans, or Korean stores at least, up Aurora around the Shoreline border.

@22, those non-white, or at least non-WASP, non-Norwegian ethnic groups, and many others, are not for "collecting", whatever that means, but for living with, sharing the cultures of, cross-pollinating with. Italian immigrants of c.1900 brought a vibrant culture with them to the big Eastern seaboard cities, as well as to some other places, that Seattle mostly missed out on. A lot of that culture is expressed as food. This isn't going to happen again, here or anywhere; Italian immigrants in 2012 are very different than Italian immigrants c. 1900. Ditto Jews. Ditto black people -- the Great Migration is over, and no part of Seattle is ever going to resemble the Fillmore or South Chicago or Harlem no matter how many black people move here. The 20s, the 50s, the 70s -- not coming back. But they, and many other groups who haven't settled into mythology yet, will move here, and will fill our region with their culture, which will be good for all of us -- indeed, essential for survival. I'm counting on you, Somalis!

The whole point of a city is sharing culturally with people you don't know -- a vast array of slippery, shallow contacts with many different kinds of people -- not just ethnicities, but classes and other things -- that is simply impossible in non-urban settings.

In contrast, the impact of rich whiny whites working tech jobs on the Eastside bring little of interest, except possibly opportunities for humor (I haven't read the book).
More...
Posted by Fnarf http://www.facebook.com/fnarf on August 14, 2012 at 5:49 PM · Report this
22
"liking" any individual restaurant, bar, or shop as your reason to live here is about as fucktarded as complaining about our similarly fleeting summer. and to fnarf, do you collect "...black people, Jews, Italians or Mexicans," as friends? (Italians, really?) reaally good analysis bb.
Posted by pioneer on August 14, 2012 at 4:25 PM · Report this
TVDinner 21
Fnarf, do you think Seattle is as decentralized as LA is? I've heard it described as being a city of multiple centers and axises. It's seemed to me like the downtown core of Seattle is a powerful regional center, but I've wondered if that's a perception I have because of the architecture there. I mean, Bellevue has a whole lot of tall buildings now, and as you have observed many times here, the most diverse population is in the burbs and scattered around Seattle instead of in the city proper, so maybe it is as decentralized as LA...?
Posted by TVDinner http:// on August 14, 2012 at 4:19 PM · Report this
biffp 20
I'll read it based on the strength of Paul's review (always interested based on those), and my hatred of most things Seattle (W&C, PPM, Jhanjay and the Fremont Troll exempted).
Posted by biffp on August 14, 2012 at 3:55 PM · Report this
Fnarf 19
@18, that long stretch of Leary; 15th West through Interbay; the whole length of Delridge through West Seattle into White Center; most of 125th; dozens of roads in Bellevue -- the list is endless. There are also hundreds of roads that have density on them, like upper Greenwood, for instance, which is lined with large apartment houses, but also has mind-boggling areas of nothing. When Seattlites complain about density, they're really complaining about traffic through areas of NOTHING to get between one tiny pocket of density and another.
Posted by Fnarf http://www.facebook.com/fnarf on August 14, 2012 at 2:16 PM · Report this
Dougsf 18
@13 - it's funny you'd postulate that. I've had more than one Los Angeleno friend ask "is this the ghetto?" when showing them around Seattle. It never was. Once happened in on Leary on the way to Hattie's about 15 years ago. To them, it was the most obvious explanation for the lack of foot traffic and yards filled with scrap and debris.

This book sounds interesting, thanks for that review.
Posted by Dougsf on August 14, 2012 at 12:45 PM · Report this
Fnarf 17
@16, LA is twice as dense as Seattle, and several times as dense as the metropolitan area here, which is the real comparison you should be making. You can't tell anything about a city by standing on a single street corner. When people in LA complain about the drive from, say, downtown Santa Monica to Sherman Oaks, they're talking about a distance comparable to Burien-Redmond; try making that in a hurry, and tell me how many people you see walking on the street along the way.

I saw people on the street there all over the place. Compare not to Capitol Hill but to Shoreline and Federal Way. And not just people, but buildings -- Seattle is still bizarrely vacant in most areas.
Posted by Fnarf http://www.facebook.com/fnarf on August 14, 2012 at 11:42 AM · Report this
McJulie 16
@13
Bizarrely depopulated LA? What? Have you been to LA? LA is the city that's like a bizarrely depopulated LA. There's never a soul on the street there, not even in the super-fancy downtown redevelopment around Staples Center. Plenty of good restaurants, sure, but as far as I can tell, people must teleport straight from their cars into the restaurants, because the only people I ever see on the sidewalk are me and my husband.

There are a couple of neighborhoods that are exceptions -- Venice, which is kind of a nonstop beach party, or Hollywood, which is fairly thick with tourists -- but most of LA on the ground is a creepy and apocalyptic land of vast unpeopled streets to nowhere.
Posted by McJulie on August 14, 2012 at 11:20 AM · Report this
15
@12 (JAT): Well, we've already got three Cheesecake Factories (Seattle, Bellevue, Tukwila), and we just had our mass shooting (Café Racer). Ausländers' and carpetbaggers' wish granted.
Posted by PCM on August 14, 2012 at 11:19 AM · Report this
Fnarf 14
@10, what Seattle needs more than anything is an influx of about eight million people. If you're looking for your 1970s Seattle back, Boise is thataway.
Posted by Fnarf http://www.facebook.com/fnarf on August 14, 2012 at 11:04 AM · Report this
Fnarf 13
@2, put me down for "meh". I was born here, grew up here, moved away to lots of different places, moved back. It's OK, but those other places have their points as well. I don't miss oven summers or snowy winters. The scenery mostly bores me; hiking, camping, meh. The ocean is too far away (especially a proper swimming ocean). I'd take California's coastline, anywhere from Santa Cruz to San Diego, in a heartbeat (ours would be improved if there were things to do there). As far as city amenities go, we're in the middle rank, hampered badly by the lack of usable transit. The cultural mix is weak but getting better (not enough black people, Jews, Italians or Mexicans). It's biggest drawback is that it's too goddamn far away from anyplace else -- 120 miles to Vancouver, 180 to Portland, 1700 to Minneapolis? Brutal. Isolated.

As a city, we're basically LA that hasn't filled in yet. People ensconced on the Hill don't see that, but it's true. We are more car-dependent and much, much less dense (and less diverse) than LA. Los Angelenos are definitely going to feel like they're driving through a bizarrely depopulated LA, minus most of the amenities that make LA so interesting.

On the other hand, hey, it's home. The weather's pretty good, there's enough city stuff to not go crazy, it's beautiful in the right light. We have a nice garden. It's just a place, you know?
Posted by Fnarf http://www.facebook.com/fnarf on August 14, 2012 at 11:00 AM · Report this
12
I've lived in places other than Seattle and was not surprised that people and things were different from what I grew up with.

Why people could one year decide this was the place to come and the next year be so aggravated that it's not like the places they chose to leave boggles my mind.

But don't worry, Ausländers and Carpetbaggers, we're just three more Cheesecake Factories and a mass shooting away from being just like whatever you fled!
Posted by JAT on August 14, 2012 at 10:57 AM · Report this
11
Somehow I knew this would become a referendum on the merits of Seattle rather than comments on a review of a work of fiction.

Nice review, by the way.
Posted by bigyaz on August 14, 2012 at 10:48 AM · Report this
10
Let's hope they make a movie of this and it becomes very popular and scares more people away from here.
Posted by pox on August 14, 2012 at 10:36 AM · Report this
biffp 9
If there is anything in there about how far superior Vancouver is, then this is the book I've been waiting for. Walrus & Carpenter and the Market is the list of what's good in Seattle.
Posted by biffp on August 14, 2012 at 10:04 AM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 8
It sounds like somebody could have used one of those full-spectrum light bulbs.

Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay http://www.danlangdon.com on August 14, 2012 at 9:32 AM · Report this
7
one of the best thing about this review is the comments of people who think the protagonist of the novel is a real person.
Posted by bastardang on August 14, 2012 at 8:54 AM · Report this
6
At least she never leaves the house so I don't have to run the risk of running into her bitchy self on the streets.
Posted by suddenlyorcas on August 14, 2012 at 8:44 AM · Report this
5
True fact: when Wilt Chamberlain passed away Maria and her husband bought his legendary pyramidal redwood fuck-palace, preserving much of its Wiltness, from mementos to his waterbed-floored "playroom". She gave birth to her daughter right under his retractable mirrored ceiling.
http://mcarch.wordpress.com/2010/01/31/w…
Posted by gloomy gus on August 14, 2012 at 8:39 AM · Report this
Cephalodude 4
Sometimes you irritate the living snot out of me and others you remind me of why you're the Stranger's lit critic. Great review.
Posted by Cephalodude on August 14, 2012 at 8:35 AM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 3
I totally love Seattle, love the weather though I think the sterotypes are a little over done by people who haven't lived here very long. And that does piss me off.
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on August 14, 2012 at 8:31 AM · Report this
2
It's fascinating to me how people either LOVE or HATE Seattle - there does not seem to be any ambivalence. I moved to Seattle from Brooklyn, lived there for 5 years, thought I would live there forever, had to leave when I got seriously ill and could no longer work (my Mom lives in upstate NY and I have lived with her now for almost 5 years). I LOVE Seattle. I miss it every day. Are there things I didn't like about it? Of course (the passive aggressiveness plague for one), but there are things I didn't like about Brooklyn, too (the cockroaches for one). I have a friend - born and bred in NYC - who moved to Los Angeles after 9/11. I thought she would hate. She loves it and is still there. SHE freaking hates Seattle! It's so weird. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, though. You'd think her husband could work remotely from somewhere else so they could live somewhere she'd be happier.
Posted by xina on August 14, 2012 at 8:26 AM · Report this
1
Haters gotta hate. I'll be there on Tuesday. Sounds like a fine book.
Posted by Swearengen on August 11, 2012 at 9:16 PM · Report this

Add a comment