Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
TRIGGER WARNING: If you are a native Seattleite, this review may piss you off.
Bookshelves: the-shit, satire, pnw, #seattlefreeze, suburbia, humor, epistolary, multiple-povs, chick-lit, five-stars-means-i’ll-read-it-again
Seattle is the only place I know of where this book actually had to be set. I loved a lot of things about this book, but I most loved the way it absolutely nails the insularity and snootiness of Seattle. And yes, I thought twice about saying that for fear of pissing off my Seattle friends. That second thought lasted about a millisecond, because although I moved to Seattle seven years ago, I don’t actually have any friends.* Bernadette would not have had the troubles she did if someone in Seattle had actually been goddamn nice to her. The setting is the whole basis for Bernadette’s continuing conflict, and without conflict you don’t have a book. So.
Decades ago, back in my home state of Nevada, I was the Soccer Mom the Other Soccer Moms Don’t Speak To. I’d say “hello” and smile as pleasantly as I know how and get looked at like I was a cockroach they found in their TGI Fridays potato skins**. I’d bring snacks to the game on my assigned snack week and get a look like I was some psychopath off the street trying to poison their kids with orange sections and granola bars. What was wrong with me, I wondered. Was it because I didn’t drive an SUV? Didn’t wear athletic garb on the street? Didn’t have my hair in a pert blonde ponytail or a butterfly tattooed on my boob? What was I doing wrong? One time, when my son got the wind knocked out of him, my identity was challenged when I went out to him as he lay on the field. “I’m his mother,” I snarled, “which I really think you should know since you see me here with him six fucking times a week.”*** I gave up after that, waited during practice in my car with a book and deliberately set up my private game-watching bubble at a distance. I did have other friends who are good folks and actually extend friendship to people, so, so what.
I thought that was bad. Then I moved to Seattle.
SCENE 1: There was a woman who had waited at my Metro stop every single morning for the previous six months. Daily contact, same time, same place, we lived in the same damned building. Several times I’d smiled at her. She just looked back down at her phone. One time I ventured to say, “Good morning.” That at least got her expression to change. Her eyes widened. Then she looked back down at her phone without a word. After that, when I joined her at the stop she looked studiously in the other direction. It took me several months to be truly repentant, when I finally grasped the depth of the insult I had inflicted upon her: I’d said “good morning.”
SCENE 2: This happened to me just last week. The front-desk women (both Seattle natives, coincidentally?…I think not) at the executive suites where I work frequently do me a small favor and I offered to buy us all lunch as a thank-you. Day scheduled, day arrived, restaurant selected, menu selections made, I ordered and paid to have it delivered and tipped generously. They immediately picked up their dishes and took them to their shared desk to eat, leaving me with nowhere closer than the conference table 50 feet away. I paid $60 for lunch for the three of us and ate by myfuckingself.
Welcome to Seattle.
As Audrey says in the book: “Within a four-mile radius is the house I grew up in, the house my mother grew up in, and the house my grandmother grew up in…My point is, you come in here with your Microsoft money and think you belong. But you don’t belong. You never will.”
No lie, Audrey, no lie. Because you are determined that we will not “belong.”
But I had to move to Seattle so I could work. To, you know, eat. I didn’t move here with Microsoft millions; I’m just another peasant struggling to pay my increasingly ridiculous rent (which Seattleites blame on transplants, the people who move here as labor force for Google and Microsoft and Boeing, instead of blaming it on the government and movers/shakers who brought those corporations in to begin with).
Google the “Seattle Freeze.” It’s a thing. Seattle is a great big bunch of Soccer Moms, albeit a bit cooler and with overall better taste, right down to the pretentiousness of wrestling their kids into the “right” kindergarten and judging a woman’s suitability to be a fellow school parent by her North Face vest and the fruit wash spray**** in her shopping cart.
And don’t get me wrong, there are good things about Seattle. The setting is exquisite and the climate is wonderful. It’s very eco-minded and the arts community is vibrant. In Seattle, nobody looks down on you for getting your clothes second-hand because it’s not about being poor or cheap, it’s lauded as upcycling (although you will be judged on the labels). Seattle maintains a very liberal and PC face, of which I also approve, but goddamn, people need more than superficiality. They need to connect. As people. Ask Maslow.
And yes, I’ve tried. I’ve extended invitations, which were ignored. I’ve joined book clubs and taken knitting classes, only to be snubbed. I do not say “the 5” or “the Puget Sound.” I know how to pronounce Alki and Puyallup and I have learned to bitch about the heat when it’s only 85. I do admit to using an umbrella and I don’t care if it makes me not cool. I don’t want my Donna Karan silk blouse ruined even if I did upcycle it.
OK, back to the book. Aside from rightfully pillorying Seattle as one great big cold shoulder, this book is a delight. It’s chick lit, but it’s good chick lit. I adore multiple points of view and the epistolary format when they’re well done, as they are here. It is a high-IQ, sassy, satirical romp.
My advice is to immediately read this book. And if you move to Seattle, embrace your inner introvert. You’ll need it.
*Well, I have one friend. We’re both transplants and were friends before either of us moved here.
**This was in the 90’s. In today’s parlance, cockroach in their kale salad.
***My kids learned to swear at home, where they’re supposed to.
****I googled it and good lord, there is such a thing. Like, hello, WATER?