Finding a book set in my home state, or even my home city, is almost too easy. For the first round of the Reading Challenge, I found a winner in The Light on the Island. For the Bonus Round, I wanted to go in a different direction. I wanted to read fiction this time.
I put Where’d you go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, published in 2012, on hold at the library. It was a book I’d heard of, but knew nothing about.
The main character is Balakrishna (“Bee”) Branch. She’s a middle school student at Galer Street School, on top of Queen Anne Hill, in Seattle. Bee’s parents had promised her that if she got straight A’s, she could have anything she wanted for graduation. Bee scored straight S’s, the highest she could score (since Galer Street believes that graders erode self esteem), so she asks for a family trip to Antarctica.
Bee’s parents moved to Seattle from California. They live in a Queen Anne Hill mansion which was built as a Catholic girls’ reform school in the 1900s, and was supposed to be converted into eight condominiums, but, due to zoning restrictions, is now a single-dwelling home.
Bee’s father is Elgin Branch. He’s a team leader at Microsoft. He commutes to Redmond on The Connector. His TEDTalk is the fourth most watched TEDTalk of all time.
Bee’s mother is Bernadette Fox, a stay-at-home mom. The Galer Street School Parents Association doesn’t know much about Bernadette. (One mother did a Google search, and could find only a prominent architect in California named Bernadette Fox – obviously not the same person.) Bernadette is viewed unfavorably by the Parents Association because she may, or may not, have driven over another mother’s foot while picking up Bee from school. The Neighborhood Association doesn’t like Bernadette, either, because of the blackberry bushes growing at the edge of her family’s property.
Bernadette is arranging the Antarctica trip through her Virtual Assistant in India.
Bernadette Fox seems to be mentally falling apart.
One day, outside of the “Rem Koolhaas-designed public library”, an architecture student recognizes Bernadette, and the mystery of Bernadette Fox deepens.
Where’d you go, Bernadette is a hilarious send-up of Seattle’s liberal Yuppie culture. It’s about the difficulties of getting Thanksgiving dinner reservations at The Washington Athletic Club (even with a Virtual Assistant) and having to settle for Daniel’s Broiler. It’s about trying to get your child into the right school, and about over-spending at REI, and about running into the judgmental parent of your child’s classmate at Whole Foods.
The book pokes fun at the city, as well. It points out Seattle’s five-way intersections, its horrible fashion sense, and Chihuly sculptures as numerous as pigeons. It gives eight-step instructions for using a Pay To Park station in Downtown Seattle.
The title suggests, and the book jacket spells out, that Bernadette disappears. I was a little worried that this “book set in my home state” would use Seattle as merely an introduction to a worldwide adventure. This was not the case. This is a book about Seattle. In a sense, Bernadette disappeared before the book began. The other disappearance happens late into the story.
I loved this book. I had a tough time putting it down. Where’d you go, Bernadette is a comedy. It’s also rather dark. It is wildly unpredictable. I never knew where the story was heading.
Book-related internet search: While most of the locations in this book are actual places, there is no “Galer Street School”. A search for that name brings up Queen Anne High School. It was built in 1908. It closed in 1981, and was converted into apartments in 1986. It was then converted into condominiums in 2006. (Sounds sort of like Bernadette’s house, eh?) It’s located on Galer Street. It’s that big white building you can see from Seattle Center.
Video bonus: Here’s the author promoting the book:
- A book set in your home state