by Maria Semple, Little, Brown and Company, December 2012
Lots of fun, a beach read in the best sense.
This wonderfully satiric novel is set in present day Seattle. The Fox family – husband Elgin a widely successful Microsoft exec, daughter Bee (short for Balakrishna)a precocious 14 year old and mother Bernadette a genius architect suffering from acrophobia – live an unorthodox life style in a deteriorating former girls convent school. As the novel opens we are presented with the fact that Bernadette has mysteriously disappeared a few days before Christmas. The story then jumps back in time to about 6 weeks before her disappearance. Using emails, memos, FBI documents and first person narration by Bee we get to meet this widely funny cast of characters and get the story.
In a nutshell Bernadette, an award winning young architect, has retreated to her home and is unable to work because of her acrophobia. While loved by her husband and idolized by her daughter, Bernadette has retreated into her own quirky world. She employs a person assistant Manjula who resides in India to complete any tasks that would require her to leave her home. Bernadette is in constant conflict with neighbors and helicopter parents at her daughter’s elementary school. Her husband is so engrossed with his Microsoft project he fails to notice the spiraling out of control issues at home. Ecology issues arise when the next door neighbor demands that Bernadette remove blackberry vines that encroach on her property. Things get wild after that! I don’t want to tell too much of this plot as it sounds so absurd but is in fact laugh out loud funny. Bee using information that is slowly revealed to her in many forms works to try and find her mother.
I liked so many things about this story – it unwinds at a fast pace, the characters are fully drawn and likeable, the unconventional methods used to tell the story, the portrait of Seattle, the Microsoft corporate culture so realistically drawn - but mostly I liked that is was such a fun book. In some deft plot mastery the author manages to pull together the minor plots that seemed extraneous to the story for a great ending. I read afterwards that the author Maria Semple was a screen writer for Arrested Development; you can see this story presented as a TV series (think Portlandia set in Seattle). Lots of fun, a beach read in the best sense.
I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.