Three Summer Reading Musts, All Set in the Northwest

In three new books, local authors emphasize the Northwest sense of place.
Brangien Davis  |   June 2012   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Illustration by James Steinberg

The Pacific Northwest is often misunderstood by outsiders—written off as a rainy hinterland populated by fleece-flaunting Earth Firsters, or parodied as a land of hipsters and dot-com millionaires jacked up on espresso. But when descriptions of the local landscape and inhabitants are in the hands of talented writers who live and work here, a truer picture emerges, as evidenced by three new fictional takes on our city and its outskirts.

The Seattle of Maria Semple’s satirical new novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (Little, Brown; due out in August), is one of private schools that teach “global connectitude,” the pecking order of the Microsoft Connector bus, a citywide obsession with Craftsman bungalows and an abundance of glass art. “Chihulys are the pigeons of Seattle,” the titular character laments, “They’re everywhere, and even if they don’t get in your way, you can’t help but build up a kind of antipathy toward them.” In fact, Bernadette—a failed architect from L.A. who moves with her family to Seattle when Microsoft buys her husband’s company—feels antipathy toward a lot of Seattle quirks as she tries to find footing in the mossy landscape.

Semple says she adores Seattle now, but admits she had similar trouble adjusting when she moved here with her boyfriend and daughter in 2008 from L.A., where she was a screenwriter (Arrested Development; Mad About You). “I was mid-40s, had just abandoned a novel and didn’t have any friends yet in this gray city,” Semple explains. She felt stuck and self-pitying until a friend from L.A. told her to snap out of it and get back to writing. The result is this high-energy, often hilarious epistolary novel in which Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, attempts to figure out what led to her mother’s breakdown and disappearance. While the book is a witty send-up of Seattle’s eccentricities, the portrait is ultimately a fond one. Even Bernadette, initially irritated by the standard local response to why people live here—“the mountains and the water”—comes to love those very features.

Olympia-based writer Jim Lynch is known for documenting the unusual beauty of our local landscape in two beloved novels: The Highest Tide (2005), about a 13-year-old boy who discovers a giant squid while kayaking in Puget Sound, earned him the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Award; Border Songs (2009), about a B.C. border patrol agent passionate about birding, won the Washington State Book Award. Lynch brings the same attention to setting to his new book, but this time the surroundings contain significantly more pavement.

Truth Like the Sun (Knopf) is Lynch’s engrossing look at Seattle by way of two significant historical periods for our city: 1962, when the World’s Fair brought new attention from all over, and 2001, after the WTO riots and the dot-com bust, but before 9/11. In the earlier time frame, we follow Roger Morgan, a charming (thoroughly fictional) mastermind behind the World’s Fair, who glad-hands his way into renown and out of slippery situations. In the latter, journalist Helen Gulanos, at work on a ho-hum 40-year retrospective on the World’s Fair for the Seattle PI, learns that Morgan, now 70, has his sights set on becoming mayor—and discovers certain skeletons he’d rather keep in the closet. Lynch’s past experience as journalist (including for The Seattle Times) is revealed in his remarkable eye for detail, which brings Seattle alive as a place where pedestrians walk through the rain “without hats or umbrellas in fleece jackets and ultralight hiking boots, as if they might scale Rainier that afternoon if the weather cleared.” But despite this vivid and often funny foray into our city streets, Lynch maintains, “I think our natural wonderland is still our defining trait.”

It’s also a defining trait in the work of Olympia-based writer Lucia Perillo, whose new collection of short stories, Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain (W.W. Norton), features troubled characters making their way amid ferry docks, the Tacoma Narrows, train tracks and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. “The Northwest setting is, I think, essential,” Perillo says of her work, “since I like to have the characters rub up against the landscape in some way, even if they’re only bird watching.” She has a special expertise in documenting the Northwest landscape, having originally moved to Washington to work at Mount Rainier for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She has since become an award-winning poet, publishing six books, including Inseminating the Elephant, which won a 2010 Washington State Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Perillo blends her naturalist’s eye with poetic language in Happiness, a hauntingly beautiful, darkly funny collection of fiction written over the last 20 years. The tightly woven stories play out against a natural background that alternately cradles and frightens its inhabitants: Two ill-fated lovers come across “a small cove scalloped into the woods, hemmed by a mound of driftwood that the ocean had tossed up”; the ancient tree where a man plans to leave his father’s ashes is “mossy on the uphill side, with roots that sat atop the soil like hands.” According to Perillo, “The volcanic nature of the underlying rock here makes the contours abrupt and jagged, so it’s easy to feel the drama of the landscape.” Which is perhaps why reading stories like these, as well as Semple’s and Lynch’s, make us feel so at home.

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