Where'd You Go, Bernadette: Reflections on Maria Semple's novel and Anxiety Attacks

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I downloaded Where'd You Go, Bernadette, a novel by Maria Semple, months ago. Last October, if you want to know the truth, when I thought my life could still make room for books.

Just before we were out the door for our weekend visit with our son, I remembered that the book was idling on my iPad and grabbed the gizmo. iPad books are particularly effective in early morning hours in hotel rooms when you really don't want to wake your husband, but you can't sleep, either. Before the crack of dawn, in a Marriott, I started in on Bernadette.

This is the story of an imploding, MacArthur-winning architect (Bernadette) in a saturated town of too-many five-point intersections (Seattle) who has a TED talk star of a husband employed by Microsoft. It is the story of gossiping neighbors, mud slides, cruel interventions, and a very smart little girl who loses her mother and hopes that the fragments she assembles (email correspondence, letters, documents) will help her right her world.

It's satire. It's funny. It hurts. It is complex and sophisticated. It gets a little crazy and perhaps (for a few pages) self indulgent. And then it rights itself. I call this kind of risk-taking novel heroic. I marvel at the fluidity of the prose, despite Semple's calculated choice to tell her story in spliced segments.

I recommend.

I always quote from books I've liked, to help give the readers of this blog a sense of what they might be in for. Typically I choose passages for their literary spectaculariness. Today I choose the piece below because when I read it, late today, after 36 hours of intense work on no more than 1,600 words (1,600 words!!!), I cried for the precision of these sentences.

This is, indeed, how an anxiety attack feels. I know. Many nights of many weeks, I know for absolute sure. Sometimes the only thing that can save me is the face of my son or the garden outside my door.

Panic, as explicated by Maria Semple:

... Even sleeping makes my heart race! I'm lying in bed when the thumping arrives, like a foreign invader. It's a horrible dark mass, like the monolith in 2001, self-organized but completely unknowable, and it enters my body and releases adrenaline. Like a black hole, it sucks in any benign thoughts that might be scrolling across my brain and attaches visceral panic to them. For instance, during the day I might have mused, Hey, I should pack more fresh fruit in Bee's lunch. That night, with the arrival of The Thumper, it becomes, I'VE GOT TO PACK MORE FRESH FRUIT IN BEE'S LUNCH!!! I can feel the irrationality and anxiety draining my store of energy like a battery-operated racecar grinding away in the corner. This is the energy I will need to get through the next day. But I just lie in bed and watch it burn, and with it any hope for a productive tomorrow. There go the dishes, there goes the grocery store, there goes exercise, there goes bringing in the garbage cans. There goes basic human kindness.


K. M. Walton said...

I'm about 80 pages into it and LOVING it. Bernadette is a fascinating character. I've laughed out loud at least three times so far. Can't wait to find out about her life pre-hermit.

The1stdaughter said...

How true is that section? Wow. So true. It describes so much of my chaotic head and the moments I dread. Last night in fact. This sounds like a book I should read, if I could make the time. Perhaps I need to make the time. Love this.

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