where’d you go, bernadette?

Our friend Maria Sem­ple mailed us an advance copy of her new nov­el, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? a few weeks ago.  Adri­enne took the first nib­ble, then qui­et­ly devoured it in a few hours, a sphin­xy smile on her face.  Being a much slow­er read­er, it took me a few days.

It’s always a scary thing, read­ing a friend’s book.  Because what if it sucks?  Which prob­a­bly it will, right, sta­tis­ti­cal­ly speak­ing?  But what good luck we’ve had.  Or what genius friends.  Some of each, I think.

Maria’s book is bril­liant.  It begins as a com­e­dy of man­ners in the Pacif­ic North­west, writ­ten most­ly in the hip post-nov­el­ian form of a col­lage of emails and notes, with occa­sion­al con­nect­ing pas­sages in the first per­son by the clever teenaged pro­tag­o­nist, Bee.

Bee’s par­ents are exiled intel­lec­tu­als from the Eatons, Choates and Prince­tons of the East Coast, flee­ing north from career suc­cess and trau­ma in Los Ange­les.  They now live in grand squalor in the ruins of a school for way­ward girls on Queen Anne Hill.  The histri­on­ics of bitchy stay-at-home neigh­bor­hood moms, the over­achiev­ing pri­vate school scene, the wincey Microsoft jar­gon of “mas­sive game chang­ers”, “non­starters” and “epic fails”, they’re all in there.  But just as one is adjust­ing to this book as light­heart­ed avant garde farce, it takes a plunge through an unseen trap­door and become some­thing total­ly dif­fer­ent.  As we enter into the mind of Bee’s moth­er (who it must be said, is very Maria-like) the book deep­ens almost dizzy­ing­ly, foibles becom­ing nail-bit­ing risks, slap­stick becom­ing poten­tial tragedy.  Char­ac­ters who are intro­duced as unsym­pa­thet­ic car­toons, seem­ing­ly whipped up to serve some minor expos­i­to­ry func­tion, pop into three-dimen­sion­al­i­ty and are warm­ly re-lit in star­tling acts of lit­er­ary sleight-of-hand.  This book is in the end humane and opti­mistic, as well as won­der­ful­ly enter­tain­ing.

I don’t know if the book design is final, but I do wor­ry about that.  The fem­i­nine hues and forms on the cov­er feel to me like they’ll sup­press male read­er­ship— per­haps also lit­er­ary read­er­ship.  Togeth­er with the whim­si­cal title, one gets the impres­sion of beach read­ing, which in a sense it is— though it’s also so much more.  I hope the stel­lar reviews Bernadette will sure­ly reap go some way toward bring­ing it the audi­ence it deserves.

Though this makes me blush, I should men­tion that Bee’s father is a Dis­tin­guished Engi­neer at Microsoft, hav­ing sold his start­up to the com­pa­ny some years ear­li­er, and has giv­en a “TEDTalk, which is num­ber four on the list of all-time most-watched TEDTalks.”  This was, Bee solemn­ly assures us, “a real­ly big deal.”  (Yes, we met Maria and her real part­ner, George, at TED.)  Luck­i­ly the resem­blances between Elgin Branch and y.t. pret­ty much end there.  Though I do quite like the idea for Elgin’s big project at Microsoft, Samantha2.. must send Desney Tan an s+…

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