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Monday, November 12, 2012

Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple, 2012, * * * *

Two days before Christmas, 15-year old Bee Branch's mother, Bernadette Fox, disappeared. Her Dad, a Microsoft guru working in the field of artificial intelligence tells the distraught Bee that (a) it's not her fault and (b) it's complicated.  "Of course it's complicated.  Just because it's complicated, just because you think you can't ever know everything about another person, it doesn't mean you can't try, says the intrepid teen, who puts together a record of her mother's life from emails, blogs, articles, and official government correspondence.   Before she was Bee's Mom, Bernadette Fox was a Los Angeles architect, winner of a MacArthur genius grant, who is a legend among college students even though her most famous work no longer exists.  After a project went terribly wrong, Bernadette and her husband, Elgin, relocated to a crumbling girls' reform school, the only non-Craftsman dwelling Bernadette could find, where Bernadette becomes a recluse who rages against the Emerald City's crunchy "connectitude", five-way traffic stops, and Canadians. The house they live in has deteriorated to the point where gardeners come in weekly to weed-whack the blackberry roots pushing up through the floor and Bernadette outsources basic errands to a virtual assistant in India.  Then Bee claims her reward for perfect grades through middle school - a family cruise to Antarctica -  and Bernadette finds herself panicking about everything from motion sickness to being trapped on a vessel with 149 other people.  After her disappearance Bee decides that Bernadette must have used the cruise to pull off her vanishing act and is determined to follow her mother literally to the ends of the earth. Semple used to write for the cult hit "Arrested Development" and she brings plenty of squirming comedy to this novel.  Her send-up of Seattle is hilarious, with its Victims Against Victimhood support groups, moms offering organic gardeners swiss chard in lieu of payment, and teachers who are so PC that fourth graders are expected to seriously debate the pros and cons of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. But the heart of the book belongs to Bee, who tests offf the chart for grit and poise and her mother, who for all her neuroses, did a bang-up job of turning out one terrific kid. 

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