If Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” represented the dark heart of the summer literature, Maria Semple’s breezy “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” embodies the sunnier, funnier side. A satiric take on all things Seattle — Microsoft, ambitious private-school parents, crunchy-granola types, politically correct self-helpers who join groups like Victims Against Victimhood, wild blackberries that ravage the hillsides untamed, the rain, oh God, the rain — the novel is scathing and funny, yet has a surprising generosity toward family dynamics, forgiveness and the burden of genius. It is an absolute delight, and I worry for the reader who isn’t thoroughly enchanted.
A patchwork epistolary novel that includes emails and official documents, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is the narrative of one Bee “Balakrishna” Fox (that “Balakrishna” was a mistake, for the record). Bee is an eighth grader who lives with her Microsoft superhero dad, Elgin, and her increasingly manic mom, Bernadette, a formerly famous architect.
Once a MacArthur “genius” grant winner, Bernadette is slowly succumbing to crushing agoraphobia — and maybe other psychological ailments. She loathes the other mothers at Bee’s social-climbing school (“gnats” — because “they’re annoying but not so annoying that you actually want to spend valuable energy on them”). She has let their home, a cavernous, crumbling former school for girls, slide further into ruin.
Any subject can sidetrack her into a rant, from the weather (“Let’s play a game. I’ll say a word, and you say the first word that pops into your head. Ready? Me: Seattle. You: Rain” ) to why she fears Canadians (“To Canadians, everyone is equal. Joni Mitchell is interchangeable with a secretary at open-mic night. Frank Gehry is no greater than a hack pumping out McMansions on AutoCAD. John Candy is no funnier than Uncle Lou when he gets a couple of beers in him. ... The thing Canadians don’t understand is that some people are extraordinary and should be treated accordingly.”)
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A planned family trip to Antarctica sets off a series of increasingly insane events that prompt Bernadette to vanish, and Bee is determined to find her mother — even if she has to travel to the edge of the known universe to do it.
Semple, a former TV writer who’s also author of the novel “This One is Mine,” has a flair for satire and screwball high jinks, and she has produced a great gift to avid readers: a book that you never want to finish reading.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor. This review originally ran in 2012.