The BUZZ: Maria Semple has written for SNL, Ellen, Mad About You, and Arrested Development. This is her 2nd novel.
The GIST: Bernadette Fox is well known in her community, but not in a good way. She seems aloof to the other mothers and doesn’t pull her weight at school; she’s a famous architect, but her house is a hulking mess; her husband, Elgin, finds her difficult and disengaged; her 14-year-old daughter, Bee, thinks she’s brilliant but absent-minded. Only her virtual assistant truly understands her.
As the novel opens, Bernadette has disappeared and Bee is piecing together what happened. This is no tragedy, just a mystery with a great sense of humor. Bernadette, Bee, and Elgin are likable characters – dysfunctional, yes, but loving and smart. Their story is cleverly told through documents: emails, letters, the odd invoice or hospital bill, FBI files, and Bee’s recollections of events. Seattle gets the full treatment, from its trying-too-hard-to-seem-like-we’re-not-trying elite private school parents to the Microsofties who rule the place. There are more than a few laugh-out-loud moments at the expense of the Emerald City and its quirks. Antarctica also has a special role to play, and the portrait of this starkly beautiful outpost is memorable.
The WRITING: Suburban satire. Anyone living in the American burbs will see themselves or those they know in the biting portraits Semple draws of schools and administrators, overly involved parents, over scheduled kids, and technology geeks. Readers will also recognize that they are in the hands of an intelligent and talented writer, one who can expertly weave multiple points of view together to tightly craft a witty and wise novel.
BUY or BORROW?: Borrow. This is a quick read due to its style and tone. It has an emotional tug but never becomes sappy. There’s a send up of architecture and some pointed commentary about the impact on artists of not creating. Finally, there’s a lovely mother-daughter relationship at the heart of this novel, and it carries the day.
There are two hairstyles here: short gray hair and long gray hair. You go into a salon asking for hair color and they flap their elbows and cluck, “Oh, goody, we never get to do color!”
People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.