You probably need to know a bit about Seattle to really appreciate Maria Semple's new book, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? It helps to know, for example, that the new Koolhaas Seattle Public Library is so Green it's heated by the body heat of library visitors and that it's cooled by breezes from Elliot Bay piped underground to the building. The good citizens of Seattle are so eager - indeed, anxious - to serve the entire population of potential library users they have created a space for bums to spend the day, isolated a bit from the people who want to do research or find a book but don't want to smell this other constituency. The furniture is designed so that it can be hosed down and disinfected overnight.
Here's one remarkably accurate Urban Dictionary description of a Seattleite:
- Is easily agitated when tourist asks to see the original Starbucks, Microsoft or Kurt Cobain's house. True Seattleites do not care for these things.
- Is a pretentious coffee snob due to the thousands of delicious coffee houses and rostaries that surround them.
- Any person who knows not to visit Pike Place Market on a Saturday.
- Any person who was disappointed by EMP (unlike the inbred hicks from across the country who come to visit it).
- Any person that hates it when Californians drive through Washington and cry about the rain and the cold.
- This is a city that is completely devoid of soccer moms.
What we have in Semple's new novel is a portrait of Seattle as seen through the eyes of Bernadette Fox, an architect from LA who is "allergic" to Seattle even after eighteen years of living there, and her husband, a Microsoft guru. They have promised their twelve-ish daughter Bee that she may have whatever she wants if she gets all As in middle school. They think she will ask for a pony, but she wants a trip to Antarctica. Bernadette, the marginally sane mother who is mildly agoraphobic and depressed because of some sort of architectural disaster in LA, is deeply distressed at the idea of crossing the rough waters of Drake Passage between Cape Horn and Antarctica. She is also distressed at having to spend time with people.
But Bernadette is bravely making plans to go on this excursion until a neighbor who lives downhill from her insists that Bernadette get rid of the blackberry vines that are creeping under and over the fence into her neighbor's perfectly maintained garden. (Not to mention crawling under and over the house that Bernadette and her family live in. They keep a weed whacker in the living room to control the shoots coming up through the floorboards.) What nobody seems to realize is that these vines are providing erosion abatement and when Seattle experiences an unusually heavy rain (predicted by Cliff Maas on his web site which everyone in Seattle reads) shortly after the vines are removed, the resulting mudslide is ruinous to the neighbor's garden and the back of her house. Partly as a result of this altercation Bernadette decides she cannot make the Antarctic trip and disappears.
I have complained that this book has been chosen by Spokane Reads as the one book everyone in our city is encouraged to read and talk about this year, but I want to withdraw that complaint. There is little Spokaneites enjoy more than making fun of Seattleites and this novel provides a cache of ammunition. Here is Bernadette on househunting in Seattle:
My first trip up here, to Seattle, the realtor picked me up at the airport to look at houses. The morning batch were all Craftsman, which is all they have here, if you don't count the rash of view-busting apartment buildings that appear in inexplicable clumps, as if the zoning chief was asleep at his desk during the sixties and seventies and turned architectural design over to the Soviets.
Everything else is Craftsman. Turn-of-the-century Craftsman, beautifully restored Craftsman, reinterpretation of Craftsman, needs-some-love Craftsman, modern take on Craftsman. It's like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle in a collective trance. You are getting sleepy, when you wake up you will want to live only in a Craftsman house, the year won't matter to you, all that will matter is that the walls will be thick, the windows tiny, the rooms dark, the ceilings low, and it will be poorly situated on the lot.
The mud-spattered neighbor suffers from the particular snobbism of old-time Seattleites, resulting from the fact that white settlement in the city goes back only to 1853 and that by far most of the people in Seattle have arrived recently from elsewhere. The neighbor brags of her family history:
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 great-grandfather was a fur trapper in Alaska . . . Warren's great-grandfather bought furs from him. My point is you come in here with your Microsoft money and think you belong, but you don't belong. You never will.
This phenomenon is called the "Seattle freeze," which is attributed to all the Scandinavian blood in the city.
But Bernadette has some upper-middle-class prejudices of her own. She is eavesdropping on a nearby table in a restaurant:
They don't know the difference between a burrito and an enchilada! . . . Oh my God, they've never heard of mole. . . . They're covered with tattoos! . . . Did you see the tattoo one of them had on the inside of his arm? It looked like a roll of tape. . . . Know what one of the guys at the drive-thru Starbuck's has on his forearm? . . . A paperclip! It used to be so daring to get a tattoo. And now people are tattooing office supplies on their bodies. . . . Oh my God. It's not just any roll of tape. It's literally Scotch Tape, with the green and black plaid. . . . If you're going to tattoo tape on your arm, at least make it a generic old-fashioned tape dispenser! . . . Did the Staples catalog get delivered to the tattoo parlor that day?
Well, I won't go on, but I do recommend the book, which is charming and witty and filled with satire at the expense of the uber-hip, the liberals who are so far left they have fallen off the continuum, the people who refuse to buy salmon unless they know the name of the boat it was caught from, a population that is divided neatly into those who work at or have made shocking amounts of money from Microsoft and those who, despite the enormous advantages to the city and the University of Washington of all that money having been channeled their way, and despite the fact that Microsoft, along with Boeing, is the very basis of the city's economy, nonetheless cherish a bitter hatred of Bill Gates and his company.