Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel

Little did I suspect when I picked up Microserfs by Douglas Coupland back in the mid nineties that just a few short years later I’d be working for the man myself (or as I like to call him now Uncle Bill). Like Coupland’s novel Generation X, Microserfs was fun and inventive and really captured a moment in time for me. It was about a group of programmers escaping Microsoft in Redmond to move to the bay area and form their own start-up. I distinctly remember the flat food scene–characters slipping a programmer Kraft cheese slices under his office door after he refused to come out.

I did the move myself backwards, moving up from Silicon Valley and nestled in to the Pacific Northwest and into my own office in Redmond. Two things I noticed when I moved here from the Bay Area–that despite the fact that I arrived in 1998 and many of my colleagues back then were millionaires, the parking lot was a lot less flashy than any would have been in Palo Alto, the other that I immediately stopped talking about how much rent I paid. I moved here and I loved the region–the color of the skies and waters, the green of the trees, the granoly people, the left-wing politics that were a given…The fact that when the sun WAS shining for the first time this Californian actually noticed it and appreciated it. And then of course there was the Microsoft culture. Everything you’ve heard and worse. The long hours, the excitement over stock splits, the huge retirement parties for millionaires, the highly smart type A and extremely competitive people who probably move a bit too fast for their own good. And then the things that you probably didn’t know–that the people who work here really are amazing, family-oriented, and with a high rate of Asperger’s. Intense, yes, always intense but maybe a bit mellowed over the years. And even a number of those that retired…returned.

Over the years, starting with Microserfs, I’ve been on the look-out for novels where Microsoft or its executives and/or it’s culture are featured. Someday, maybe, I expect there to be a college lit course on American Literature in the Dot Com and Post-Dot Com Era because there have actually been a number of them. Among the list I would also include:

  • The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. One of my favorite novels of 2011, the main heroine of the novel is the CEO of a start-up in 1999, while her sister works in an antiquarian bookstore owned by a former Microsoft employee and millionaire. This book has been compared to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and is a wonderful read if you like intelligence. I felt this really did capture what was happening during this time period and the book was nominated for the
  • Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs by Daniel Lyons. Lyons, the tech reporter who also anonymously wrote the Fake Steve Jobs blog turned his writing to this novel. Since the book is about Apple, of course both Ballmer and Gates show up as characters in this hilarious love letter to the absurdities of the super rich and the dot com era. I have this one back again in my to read pile to see how it stacks up now after Jobs is gone.

All three of these novels were humorous– the Cookbook Collector maybe a little more subtle. I guess I should revise that college course to the Comic Novel of American Literature in the Dot Com and Post Dot Com Era.

All this is to add one more book to my list–Maria Semper’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. When I read an article about Semple’s use of Microsoft and Seattle in her book, I immediately downloaded it on my Kindle and started to read it that evening. Microsoft is only a minor character in this book, Bernadette’s husband is a VP in charge of a highly anticipated project. The main focus is on Bernadette, a former award winning architect who has retired to Seattle to raise her daughter and through a series of unfortunate events starts to unravel and then disappears.

I loved this book–because this one captures not only some of Microsoft’s culture, but the whole Pacific Northwest region–the Helicopter Moms, the pretentious school involvement, the Tom Douglas restaurants, Chihuly chandeliers, the horrible drivers, the famous Seattle freeze, which she captures all in this passage:

“My great-grandfather was a fur trapper in Alaska,” Audrey said. “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.”

She nails the culture at Microsoft–the meeting rooms, the Connector buses, nd something I’ve always wondered WTF at Microsoft–the diminishing numbers of much needed admins.

“Another oddity: there are no assistants. Elgie heads a team of 250, and they all share one assistant. Or admins, as they’re called, accent on the “ad.” In L.A., someone half as important as Elgie would have two assistants, and assistants for their assistants, until every bright son or daughter or anyone west of the 405 was on the payroll. But not at Microsoft. They do everything themselves through specially coded portals.”

And the sky. Semple gets it here:

“I’ll miss the afternoons when I’d go out on our lawn and throw my head back. The sky in Seattle is so low, it felt like God had lowered a silk parachute over us. Every feeling I ever knew was up in that sky. Twinkling, joyous sunlight; airy, giggling cloud wisps; blinding columns of sun. Orbs of gold, pink, flesh, utterly cheesy in their luminosity. Gigantic puffy clouds, welcoming, forgiving, repeating infitetly across the horizon as if between mirrors; and slices of rain, pounding wet misery in the distance now, but soon on us, and in another part of the sky, a black stain, rainless.”

The novel is great fun. The plot was awesome and I even shed a tear over the Runaway Bunny. You can see Maria’s hilarious book trailer for it here.

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