The assignment: Craft a novel from the literary equivalent of found objects. Consider the narrative possibilities contained not just in letters and e-mails, but in school report cards, emergency room bills and police reports filed by night managers at Westin Hotels. The resultant work must have a compelling plot, a strong sense of place and fully realized characters. Make it warm, dark, sad, funny — and a little bit screwball.
Could we ask for a more delightful response to that assignment than Maria Semple’s second novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”?
Precocious eighth-grader Bee Branch is the narrator of this pastiche of an epistolary novel about private-school politics, friendship, marriage, Seattle and what it’s like to be a kid born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome whose life unravels when her mother disappears.
Bee’s mother, Bernadette Fox, is an elegant recluse, an eccentric, borderline agoraphobic who seems to dislike everyone outside her nuclear family. She outsources errands and confides in her only friend, Manjula, a “virtual assistant” in India to whom she pays 75 cents an hour. Bernadette bristles at crunchy Seattle culture with its loopy support groups and its two styles of coiffure: “short gray hair and long gray hair.” A once-celebrated architect who won a MacArthur genius award, Bernadette has become paralyzed at midlife, holed up in a crumbling former girls’ school she purchased as the family home. It rains inside the rooms, and blackberry vines poke up through the floorboards. “All day and night it cracks and groans, like it’s trying to get comfortable but can’t,” Bee observes of the house that seems a metaphor for her mother’s emotional disrepair.
Semple has a background in television; she wrote for the fabulously twisted series “Arrested Development,” which helps explain how she manages to infuse this sometimes bleak narrative with light, enabling readers to root for a character who is, at first glance, rather unlikable. “She was an artist who had stopped creating,” her Ted Talk-famous, Microsoft honcho husband reflects. “I should have done everything I could to get her back.”
As the plot escalates with a wild chase through the Antarctic Ocean, a dash of Russian mafia and a few penguins thrown in, the narrative veers toward absurdity, but Semple is such a talent that suspending disbelief becomes part of the fun. This is an inventive and very funny novel that gets bonus points for transcending form.
Coll is the author of four novels, most recently “Beach Week.”