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+…