As I’ve said time and time again, it’s harder for a comic novel to get traction in a literary marketplace. So that’s why I was particularly enthusiastic when Maria Semple’s novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, took the writing world by storm last fall. Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times said it clearly. Like many writers, this book did not fall in her sweet spot, but “She has written a fantastic, funny novel. It’s affecting characters, not-necessarily-nice humor and surprising plot twists make this novel an enchanting ride.”
Semple already had a strike against her. She’d already had one unsuccessful novel published, and you must know it’s much harder to get the momentum going on a second novel when you’ve got unflattering numbers working against you. You’re not the hot young thing. Buyers look at your track when making their decision. And yes, the first novel, This One is Mine, had the Los Angeles curse, that weird thing where novels set in Southern California seem to perform worse than the equivalent book set elsewhere. Side note--we're featuring this novel on our Hollywood table, along with Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins (appearing at Boswell May 6) and Paul McComas's Fit for a Frankenstein (appearing May 7, along with Dave Luhrssen for his Mamoulian biography)
That problem was fixed in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, when the setting, like Semple herself, moved to Seattle. The only problem? Semple didn’t seem to really take to Seattle. I always think about that city as a city growing quickly, a siren song to the well-heeled, intelligent, and artistic. It’s every city’s dream to attract that kind of immigrant. But I also have at least one friend whose family has lived in the Queen City for over a century, and I know that it can also be an insular place, something that Semple is said to have sampled in her move.
And it shows in the novel. Bernadette and her family relocated from Los Angeles, and she’s retreated from civilization, hiding out in her shed, feuding with the neighbors, who are fellow parents at her daughter Bee’s school. Bernadette copes by getting a virtual secretary based in India, and slowly hands over the daily struggles of life (along with all her financial records) to Manjula. Meanwhile her husband Elgin is a high-profile exec at Microsoft (they wound up in Seattle when he sold his company to them), with lots of buzz from his high-profile TED talk, and in charge of a new top secret project. And what do you know that another fellow parent is Elgin’s new admin and seems to have developed a crush on him.
And Bernadette’s daughter Bee, making her way at Galer Street School, that hive of intellectual activity unfortunately located at an industrial park? Mom has plans to sent her to boarding school and get her out of Seattle, but Bee would want nothing more than a family try to Antarctica. It’s a frantic jumble, and the structure of the story plays on that chaos. I think you’d almost call this an epistolary novel, but taken to the next level, filled with emails, school memos, journals, doctor’s reports, and taped conversations. It’s craziness, but what less would you expect from a former write at the beloved television series, “Arrested Development.”
So the thing I need to tell you about Where’d You Go, Bernadette is that I was not an early reader on the book. I read the reviews, watched us chasing stock (and chased a little bit of stock myself) and heard the enthusiastic reads from others. And the reader crying the loudest among the folks I knew was my old colleague Nancy Quinn. She went gonzo for this book. Before the Buy Local Gift Fair, which Nancy helps organize each December, she sent a note to me, saying “Bring copies of Bernadette. I have to hand-sell this.” And she did.
When the paperback was announced and we were given an opportunity to host an event with Maria Semple (on Wedensday, Ma y 1, 7 pm), I wrote to Nancy right away. “We’ve got to have Local First Milwaukee co-sponsor this.” And yes, I wanted to harness the power of Nancy to make this an amazing event. It deserves nothing less. But it was more than that—this was a great novel to work on together. Where’d You Go, Bernadette really is about falling in love with your city. As much as Bernadette (and the author too) had trouble taking to Seattle, by the end (and I don’t want to give anything away here, so no details), the’ve got a totally different face on the place.
And that I think is part of what the Local First movement is all about, helping your place become the best place it can be, showing the love and support you can to make vibrant and sustaining and different. Nancy and I share that philosophy. I’ve always said that the thing about Milwaukee is expectations—for a lot of visitors, it’s nicer than a lot of folks expect it to be. Local First and all the other unique retailers who are a part of it (and nonretailers too, by the way) are part of that process.
Help the process along? If you’re an independent, locally-based business, maybe it’s time to join Local First Milwaukee. And if you’re a shopper, you consider moving over some of your purchases to your favorite indie retailer, or maybe you can step out of your box and discover a few indie retailers that you’ve never visited before. Could be fun. Lots more information on the Local First website.
Come celebrate the vibrancy of localness, Milwaukee and Seattle both, at Maria Semple’s event at Boswell on Wednesday, May 1, 7 pm, co-sponsored by Local First Milwaukee. Need more prodding? Here are some more reasons to come.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is named one of the six finalists for the Woman's Book Prize (fomerly the Orange Prize). Another is Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (coming to Milwuakee Public Market this Friday, April 19, 6:30 pm).
Janet Maslin praises Semple’s “free-range hilarity” in The New York Times.
Maria Semple speaks to Julie Bosman in The New York Times about the city’s reaction to the book.
Semple speaks to the “illicit thrill” of the epistolary novel on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Time magazine’s Lev Grossman names Where’d You Go, Bernadette? As one of the ten best novels of the year.
Yvonne Zipp in the Christian Science Monitor says Semple’s novel one of three outstanding novels of 2012.
And Susan Coll in The Washington Post says Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the literary equivalent of found objects.
We've got lots of upcoming events listed on this blog post. Get more details on our website.