Written by on October 30, 2012

Bad Parenting, Seattle Division, and a Quick Trip to Italy

Continuing with my theme of arguments for contraception and/or abstinence, I recently read Where’d you go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. One of the most complex characters I’ve had the pleasure to encounter lately, Bernadette is an ex-architect, wife of a Microsoft bigwig, and mother of Bee. She’s moved unwillingly with her family from California to Seattle, and hates it to an almost unimaginable degree. At first, the fellow parents she hates so much are drawn with such broad strokes that I was afraid the book was going to be too cartoonish for me. Gradually the caricatures get fleshed out, though, and turn out to be more real than they seemed. And some of Bernadette’s snarkiness is hard not to snicker along with:

Remember when the feds busted in on that Morman polygamist cult in Texas a few years back? And the dozens of wives were paraded in front of the camera? And they all had this long mouse-colored hair with strands of gray, no hairstyle to speak of, no makeup, ashy skin, Frida Kahlo facial hair, and unflattering clothes? And on cue, the Oprah audience was shocked and horrified? Well, they’ve never been to Seattle.

There are two hairstyles here: short gray hair, and long gray hair.

Bernadette is instantly at war with her neighbors and the PC parents at Bee’s school, Galer Street Elementary (grading system: S = Surpasses Excellence, A = Achieves Excellence, W = Working towards Excellence). The family, at Bernadette’s urging, buys a crumbling mansion in an advanced state of moldy decay. Soon she’s in a major bitchfest with her neighbor Audrey over blackberry abatement.

But the plot really thickens when Bee collects on her reward for getting straight S’s on her report card: she insists on a family trip to Antarctica, on which Bernadette disappears. It’s left to Bee, who refuses to believe that Bernadette isn’t alive, to make sense of the clues, many of which arrive in a package from a very surprising source. The characters are quirky and hilarious, and the story ends up being emotionally satisfying in a way I did not see coming.

Beautiful Ruins is a very different story. Unlike Bernadette, it has multiple plot lines, an army of characters, and jumps around from Italy in the early 60s to Edinburgh and Hollywood in the present. A fictionalized Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor have significant roles in the 60s portion, and the characters who connect the two time frames are an Italian innkeeper and an American film producer — on location in Italy in the 60s, doing damage control to prevent a possible scandal, and in Hollywood in the present, addicted to plastic surgery and still running the show.

The first impression one gets of Michael Dean is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell injections that have caused a seventy-two-year-old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl.

All the hopping around with different characters, the movie stars, and the Botox, could very quickly turn into a door-slamming farce, in the hands of a lesser author. But Walter manages to make believable, and at least occasionally sympathetic characters out of the scads of people populating this novel. Themes that run through the book are fleeting youth, the quest to be a star, fame and power. I didn’t want this one to end, and will watch for future novels (and dig for earlier ones) by Walter.

Author photos, from top:

Leta Wagner
Hannah Assouline

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