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Maria Semple’s New Epistolary Novel is Black, Ribald And...

By Shannawilson @shanna_wilson
Maria Semple’s new epistolary novel is black, ribald and...

Maria Semple’s new epistolary novel is black, ribald and flips American culture, specifically in the Pacific Northwest, on its absurd little head. Its a fast and furious read, but her subtle skill at rendering underlying cultural mores - like the character differences between Mac and PC users, and the fundamentally unalike characteristics of East Coast vs. West coast kids is masterful. On being raised in Seattle, Bernadette tells her daughter, “Do you know how absolutely exotic it is that you haven’t been corrupted by fashion and pop culture?” Priceless.

Bernadette Fox is a misanthropic recluse, a tortured genius living on the fringes of society in a crumbling former home for girls. A McArthur genius recipient for her work in the L.A. architecture scene, she falls into manic disrepair herself, when her career dreams don’t end up as planned. Her Microsoft executive husband is loyal, but elusive, and Semple easily navigates the waters of corporate culture on the west coast, passive aggressive people in Seattle, and the maddening scenarios that go on in every after school pick-up setting across the country. Competitive, gossiping parents, mothers who are looking for a fight, unending school politics and someone always looking to focus in on the troubles of other people’s lives, as opposed to their own.

It’s part satire, part comic absurdity, completed by an affair with a secretary, a psych intervention, and a disappearance in Antarctica, all of which, have a lot to say about the characters and the angle the author leads from in their own right. It pokes fun at the cliched affair - where there’s always one person more interested than the other—the victim groups, filled with dysfunctional characters, and often led by dysfunction itself. Finally, we end in a remote part of the world, only conquered by geniuses and tenacious scientists, unsettled with their own surroundings.

Without banging America’s cultural consistency for stereotypes over the head, she carefully places the nail on the head in the context of the characters’ (mainly mother, daughter, neighbor and mistress) thoughts and observances of the world. When describing a prayer room on her cruise ship, Bee notes, “Janitors, lunch-counter workers, and taxi drivers would go in and pray”—assessing that only blue collar, less educated people believe in that sort of thing. When Soo-Lin tells Audrey about her victim support group, the way in which Semple relates their often silly marketing acronyms is a fun poke at standing around in a circle with strangers and chanting positive reinforcements.

At its heart, is the relationship between a family that has gone off the rails to everyone but themselves. And how they gracefully get back on track. Which involves wisdom teeth, rediscovered self-worth, and maybe a new house that isn’t leaking rusty water from the roof. Maria Semple is onto something.

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