Bernadette Fox loathes Seattle, a city she calls the “dreary upper-left corner of the Lower Forty-eight.” Her husband, Elgie, has become the stereotypical Seattle man: a Microsoft executive who rides a bike and works endless hours on code-named IT projects. And don’t even get her started on the weather.
“What you’ve heard about the rain: it’s all true,” says Bernadette. “So you’d think it would become part of the fabric, especially among the lifers. But every time it rains, and you have to interact with someone, here’s what they’ll say: ‘Can you believe the weather?’ And you want to say, ‘Actually, I can believe the weather. What I can’t believe is that I’m actually having a conversation about the weather.’”
The only thing Bernadette hates more than Seattle, in fact, is the people who live there. This has not earned her many fans among the other mothers at the private school where her precocious daughter Bee is enrolled. Once an up-and-coming architect in Southern California, Bernadette now spends her days holed up in their decaying house (a former home for wayward girls) and relying on an Internet assistant in India to run her errands.
When 15-year-old Bee chooses a family trip to Antarctica as her reward for stellar grades, the agoraphobic Bernadette steels herself for a journey way, way outside her comfort zone. But as the vacation nears, Bernadette’s increasingly eccentric behavior worries Elgie, who stages a bumbling, ill-fated intervention that ends in Bernadette’s disappearance and presumed death. But in this bitingly funny novel, nothing is what it appears.
One might think no one could hate Seattle as much as Bernadette. But author Maria Semple is here to tell you differently. She moved to Seattle four years ago after leaving behind a successful career as a television writer in Los Angeles.
“I love Seattle now,” she insists during a phone interview from her Seattle home on, yes, a rainy day. “At first, I didn’t like it. I left a very successful writing career and I didn’t have a career. I have this fiendish creative energy I can’t turn off, and I was only applying it to how much I hated Seattle. I caught myself doing that and thought, hey, that’s kind of funny.”
Thus Bernadette Fox was born. But Semple hastens to add that is the only similarity between her and her character. Semple’s 8-year-old daughter does attend private school, but the moms there are nothing like the book’s obnoxious social climbers.
And unlike Bernadette, who abruptly abandoned her promising career after a traumatic event two decades before, Semple has worked steadily in her chosen profession for years. She published her first novel, This One is Mine, in 2008, and has written for magazines and TV, including “Mad About You” and the cult favorite “Arrested Development.”
“I can see why TV writing might seem glamorous,” Semple says. “But it gobbles up your time like you can’t believe. It’s seven days a week, until 2 or 3 in the morning.”
After working on a critically revered show like “Arrested Development,” Semple says, she saw that it was time to walk away from what some would say is a dream gig. So she and her boyfriend—and here she stops to chide herself, “Boyfriend. It sounds like I just picked up some guy at a bar. We’ve been together 25 years.”—packed up their young daughter and moved north. Once she realized that her fuming about Seattle’s detriments was actually funny, Semple set to work.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is told through letters, emails, invoices and even police reports. Semple decided to try this approach after a few failed attempts to write from Bernadette’s agoraphobic, slightly misanthropic view.
“I had this big ‘aha’ moment: This’ll be an epistolary novel, which is one of the most traditional, old-fashioned forms of writing,” Semple says. “Dangerous Liaisons influenced this book, although this book is about really modern issues.”
Once that decision was made, Semple set the simple goal of writing one of the great epistolary novels.
“It is a lot of pressure,” she says. “I would sit down and think, oh, shit, now I have to write a TED talk! Almost every day felt like, oh my gosh, are you kidding me, now I have to do this?”
The format works, beautifully. Jaunty, buzzword-laden emails from a private school fundraiser are interspersed with a psychiatrist’s transcript of Bernadette’s intervention. Every character is funny, flawed and achingly real.
Jonathan Franzen himself has written that he “tore through this book with heedless pleasure,” a fact that Semple is still trying to process like the Franzen fangirl she is.
“That was like someone reached out of another dimension into my life,” she says of Franzen’s high praise. “He’s the one that I feel like kind of gave me permission to be the writer I am. The Corrections was crazy and original. I kept it next to me while writing Bernadette. It was a reminder that this can be done.
“I sent him the manuscript with a note saying thank you for being the writer you are, and then he somehow plucked it off the pile. . . . Getting an email from Jonathan Franzen was really a high point of my career.”
That Franzen guy is definitely on to something. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a summer must-read in which Semple takes you to the ends of the earth—literally. You will love being along for every minute of this completely original and hilarious ride.