… or Menace to Society

Scene: Maria Semple, a veteran of TV-writing (Arrested Development, Ellen, and Mad About You) has written a wickedly clever comedy of manners involving fifteen-year old Bee Branch, the daughter of Bernadette Fox and Elgin Branch (a wealthy Seattle couple), who is cashing in on her parents’ promise of “whatever she wants” when completing middle school with perfect grades. What does Bee ask for? A cruise to Antarctica. Why not? This proves problematic for Bernadette, who suffers agoraphobia and has become increasingly reclusive. So problematic that Bernadette goes missing the day before the family is to set off on their trip. Piecing together emails, IM’s, blog posts, and other written correspondence, we learn of the events that led to Bernadette’s disappearance.

Jennifer and Lara are sitting at a local restaurant, shoved into a corner booth, with books, glasses, pens, paper, and iPhones in complete disarray as they write their next Snotty Literati column. In short: if we are not Bernadette, we do not mind the comparison.


Snap 2013-09-08 at 17.50.37Lara: I’m going out on a limb and saying that Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple will be my favorite book (I read) of 2013. I’m putting it up there with Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You and Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. It’s comedy genius. I’m telling everyone to read it. Everyone. It deserves real attention, which I think humorous books don’t get. It’s like the Oscars—a comedy never wins best picture. Bernadette should have been considered for and won the National Book Award. No, not the Pulitzer. You know how I feel about those pesky and precocious Pulitzer people. Pfffft!

Jennifer: I loved it too. I loved so much about this book. Comedy-writing is special, and it gets minimal “serious” attention; this book deserved the other stuff. Literati Attention! There were obstacles, you know. I don’t really want to get all ballistic or anything, but Semple is a woman—and she wrote about a woman, a funny woman. When that happens, the literati gets confused. Is this chick-lit? No. Is it like Patchett? Ehrlich? Why not?

I will say that I felt like this book captured some of the truths about motherhood in a unique way. Here’s but one funny example, uttered by Bee: “Mom never lets me play [the flute] in the car because she’s afraid someone might crash into us and my flute will impale me into the seat.” Interestingly and quite honestly, I have similar fears about lollypops. I’m not thrilled about my kids sucking on Tootsie Pops while I’m driving, for reasons you might imagine and I’d rather not mention aloud in case I’d be invoking the Wrath of God. When my husband hands them lollypops in the car, I insist they take them out and hold them away from their faces while we slowly and safely brake to approach red lights.

But this book is not mere fun and games. I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s there! This book, just like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is about Art! It’s revealed—after quite a bit of fun and games—that Bernadette is a MacArthur grant-winning architect with a sordid past that’s rendered her a little whacky.  When her former colleague reads a ranting letter from her, he writes back, “Bernadette, Are you done? You can’t honestly believe any of this nonsense. People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.”

I’d like to humbly suggest that this is the theme of the novel: Without their art, artists become menaces to society.

Such is Bernadette’s fate. Her husband, Elgin, describes her using an interesting word. He says that she is “ungovernable.” I like this a lot. She is a woman without rules, without structure, without a god. She is, without her work of creation, rendered mad. Wow.

Lara: Yes! She literally goes off the deep-end. But, it isn’t just Bernadette who’s a whackadoo. I loved her equally whacko neighbor Audrey Griffin, a fellow parent, who Bernadette almost knocks over with her car at afternoon school pick up and who has created a neighborhood nightmare because a pesky bunch of Bernadette’s blueberry bushes are encroaching on the Griffin’s property.

Audrey is such a self-righteous, conniving, helicopter-parenting, psycho-mom I loved hating her. I loved that Bee, Bernadette’s daughter, hated her too. One of my favorite scenes early on in the book was an exchange Audrey has with Bee at the school:

“I hear you are going to boarding school,” she said. “Whose idea was that?”
“Mine,” I said.
“I could never send Kyle to boarding school,” Audrey said.
“I guess you love Kyle more than my mom loves me,” I said, and played my flute as I skipped down the hall.

Jennifer: She shouldn’t be playing the flute while skipping.

Lara: Um, are you hall monitor all of a sudden? Bernadette’s love for Bee is fierce. Yet they live in squalor. They have this house, a former school, which is falling apart – weeds are coming up through the floorboards; there are multiple holes in the roof. Rainstorms—a daily occurrence—are a nightmare at the Fox/Branch residence. I found this fascinating, funny, and sad.

Jennifer: Okay, so we loved it. I’m wanting to suck in the serious literati folk who missed this book—though, in truth, I’ve never heard Semple complaining or saying anything like, “Where’s my National Book Award?” or “How come men aren’t reading me?” But why, Lara, aren’t men reading this—or are they?

Lara: Just the power of our review will have them reading it and eating out of the palms of our hands. Bwahahahahahaha! Oh, wait. Back to your question. Our friend, Scott MacDonell, read it and loved it. He’s a man.

Jennifer:  True, but Scott is different. He’s always been in touch with his feminine side. He’s always liked Liza Minnelli, for example. I think he’d want for me to say he’s straight and married, at this point. That said, I don’t think he’s ever read my Love Slave—so he’s in touch, but it only goes so far.

Lara: But men aren’t reading it because the cover looks like Chick-Lit and it has “Bernadette” in huge letters. Men are visual. Men need to realize, with a little research (or talking to us), they can find these gems that are GEMS. I mean, I am tempted to recommend that her publisher do another release and in bigger letters put Written by a Writer of Arrested Development. Would that help?

Jennifer: Ms. Semple, if you are reading, do you care about this man-issue? Are you missing their readership?

I could tackle this book on many fronts: The point of view front: this is an epistolary novel with multiple points of view—all engaging. The comedy-writing front: are we wrong or does comedy just not get taken seriously? The mom front: In all honesty, this book appealed to me because it’s about the mom who doesn’t belong. She doesn’t fit in with the mom-crowd, and she never will. The art front: my personal default mode, which I do ache to dwell on. How Artists Become Menaces To Society. The feminist front: okay, why not? Lara, is this a freakin’ feminist text? Maybe I’m especially hung up on the idea of the ungovernable funny woman as protagonist. The woman who cannot be contained.

Lara: If you call this a feminist text, there will never be another man who reads it. Ever.

It’s time for the tough love I know you hate. Here goes.

That all sounds like too much. Too heavy. Too time consuming. If we have to think about it like that, it’s not going to appeal to the masses. And don’t we want that? Clever books like this in more hands? The unfortunate reality is not all people who read books are book people. They aren’t looking to just read. They are looking for a specific book they want to read. That’s how the masses read. They go in looking for Gone Girl because they hear everyone talking about it. I know this is true, because I read it on the interwebs at Book Riot.

Jennifer: Interwebs? What? Why this lingo? That’s lingo, right? My bad? My bad! Dear Lord!

Lara: You are showing your age. Go with it, mama. And you know what else? This absolutely is a book the masses should be reading . It’s accessible. While it pokes fun at helicopter parents and folks caught up with too much stuff, it also easily gets to the heart of the matter really well: we aren’t living if we aren’t doing what we love. Whatever that is.

Queue cheesy music…

Jennifer: Oh, Lara, Sweet Lara. Do you think I give a flying foosball (how’s that, mom?) about what the masses read? I’ve got one word for you. Excuse me:  four words. Fifty Shades Of Grey.

(And, though I’m working on it—I swear I am, I’m a helicopter mom.)

Well, we should do some research here, but I don’t really like doing that sort of thing. If I did, I might pose the following questions:

  • In terms of gender, who read this book?
  • In terms of audience, was it primarily your basic mass market people who read Twilight and shit, or was it your literati types who moved from Billy Lynn to Bernadette? (Who figures out that kind of stuff, and how do they do it?)
  • Out of the mass market readership, what’s the gender break-down? Make-up?
  • Out of the literati market readership, what’s the gender break-down? Make-up?
  • Am I doing this right?

The point: the masses don’t mean a lot to me. I know this is naïve. I’m sure it reflects poorly on me. Too heavy? Pity . . .

If you insist on talking mass-market appeal, I might mention Bridget Jones’s Diary. I think the appeal is similar. I doubt men read that one either.

Lara: Okay, maybe I am not talking MASS market but MORE market. And more men in this market. Is that fair? I can’t tell you why this book was missed by so many, but it was. As will be much of what we read and dissect here.

The point is that it’s a clever and well-written book and it should be getting way more exposure than it does. I like to think that is the crux of our column, and of reviewers like us? To help spread the word, little by little? To serve as arbiters of good taste? I’d like to think that we yield such influence. Ha!

So while I dream about our reach and influence, let’s talk about why this book is so good and why people should read it (and not why people aren’t).

Jennifer: Simply and faux-succinctly, it’s been my experience that—step in, men, if you think I’m being unfair—women are interested in the inner lives of men, but men are not so interested in the inner lives of women. Add to that the comedic element, and both genders may get a little dismissive. Comedy is fun, but it’s not serious. So this book slipped off the radar.

Though, Lara, I’m thinking this book did pretty well? No? But women are the ones who read mostly, anyway.

Here are three reasons why everyone should read this book:

  • Lines like this: When she’s aggravated, she says things like this:

“Already I wished a Chechen rebel would shoot me in the back.”

  • Humanity exposed. Men and women are both interested in what it means to be human, right? I mean, some of us are artists (me! me! me!), some of us are moms (you and I both!), some of us wrestle with our existence and our purpose (who doesn’t?). Here’s a simple passage for the moms out there, who have ever experienced a hospitalized child—which, I tell you (and I know you know it), is a uniquely traumatic experience. This is from the now-healthy daughter’s perspective:

“Walking through the halls, Mom is always, like, having a Vietnam flashback. We’ll pass some random piece of art hanging on the wall and she’ll grab onto a chair and say, Oh, God, that Milton Avery poster. Or, gulping a big breath, That ficus tree had origami cranes hanging on it that awful Christmas. And then she’ll close her eyes while everyone just stands there, and Dad hugs her really tight, tears flooding his eyes, too.”

You’ve been there, haven’t you? My daughter had emergency surgery in the middle of the night at Phoenix Children’s when she was six-months-old, and we are still staggering.

  • If the humor, the universal themes on defining self, and the artistic agenda do not grab you, I think you might want to read this because you get to go to Antarctica which is unusual.

Lara: So check this out. I am going back to gender issues. I emailed our token male Bernadette reader, Scott MacDonell, and quizzed him on this book. Here are the nuggets he shared:

  • He read it because his wife read it and loved it and recommended he read it. WOMENS: Start recommending books to your MENS.
  • What he liked about it: “Almost everything. It had the combination of things that I love in fiction:  wicked humor, the essence of mystery and revenge, mommy and daddy issues, artistic failure and rebirth.” [And for this, we love you, Scott. We also love you because you absolutely love female-heroine/protagonist fiction. And because you are funny as hell.] [From Jennifer: But when are you going to read Love Slave, mofo?]
  • He doesn’t think men are reading Bernadette for a few reasons, although he thought we might be wrong in that assumption (silly rabbit). “I can only think of a couple of male friends who would pick up Bernadette—opting instead for murder mystery, war, espionage—or maybe my more high-minded friends might go for a Don Quixote. Lots of my male friends read bios and autobios, too. If people in general aren’t reading it, assuming that’s true, I can think of several reasons why it’s not getting picked up:  it’s very geo-centric, the cover is boring [WHAT? I LOVE THE COVER], the title is long and not initially intriguing.  Also, people are stupid and want to watch Reality TV.  There you have it.

He’s right. There you have it. And, if you want him to read your Love Slave, have his wife read it first.

Jennifer:  Thank you to Scott. I like the cover too.

Well, yes, I’d like very much to discuss gender issues, but we need to switch our verbiage around. Now, we must refer to it as a text and this is a discourse. This is part of the feminist discourse, and our text is Bernadette.

A few comments. I think Bernadette, the protagonist, is implicitly dangerous to the patriarchy (WRITE THIS WORD DOWN) because she’s a woman, she’s over forty (over fifty?), she’s funny, and she’s a threat to stability—the stability of such hallowed environs as Microsoft and the private school industry. Funny, old broads are bad news: see The Feminist Discourse 101. I can hook you up with reading materials.

Blah blah blah.

Yeah, I got a full dose of this stuff in grad school. Made me want to immediately marry, change my last name, and get objectified. But no one wanted to objectify me!

Really, I’d love to hear what Ms. Semple has to say about this, and how she’d like for her book to be read, and by whom. That probably isn’t going to happen.

Well, here are some possible closing remarks for me, unless I feel like saying something else. MY BIG POINTS ARE BELOW.

  1. Bernadette’s ungovernability has more to do with her role as Artist than with her role as Woman. This should be something both genders think about. I know that one major frustration in my personal life—which I have no trouble sharing—has been that my own ungovernability has been attributed to my femininity, and not my artistry. Does this make sense to the MISOGYNISTS IN MY LIFE? I’ve talked a lot about this elsewhere, but when I stopped writing for a while when I had my first child, I sunk into a depression and was a menace, mostly to my patriarchy-representing spouse.
  2. This is, as aptly mentioned above, a comedy of manners. I don’t think either of us is terribly familiar with Seattle (though I loved it that one time I visited), but many people in-the-know draw out how great her Seattle Critique is. And it is:

“Greetings from sunny Seattle, where women are ‘gals,’ people are ‘folks,’ a little bit is a ‘skosh,’ if you’re tired you’re ‘logy,’ if something is slightly off it’s ‘hinky,’ you can’t sit Indian-style but you can sit ‘crisscross applesauce,’ when the sun comes out it’s never called ‘sun’ but always ‘sunshine,’ boyfriends and girlfriends are ‘partners,’ nobody swears but someone occasionally might ‘drop the f-bomb,’ you’re allowed to cough but only into your elbow, and any request, reasonable or unreasonable, is met with ‘no worries.’”

But it isn’t only Seattle that gets social critique; it’s what is considered the norm and the cool. Bernadette is neither normal, nor cool—she is outside of the norm, and decidedly uncool. She looks at some cool people ordering in a Mexican restaurant, and says, “They’re covered in tattoos! What, you’re so cool that you ink yourself head-to-toe, but you don’t know the difference between an enchilada and a burrito?” Bernadette is wry with insight on contemporary norms. Certainly, those of us who feel less-than-chic might relate.

I thought I had a #3, but I can’t remember it. I do think we should recommend books to our men.

Lara: Those are all good points and at the end of the day, it’s just a good book—and not as heady as we made this review—and one that I will recommend to a man once I find him.

Jennifer: I don’t do non-heady, sister.

Next up, we go all literary memoir with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.


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