A douche canoe that I (probably shouldn't have) dated for a couple months a few years ago once told me that I didn't like Glee because I didn't understand satire. I'd like to hand him this book and say, "Suck on it, asshat."
I suppose that's an entirely different story. The point is, I loved this book. It's sharp, witty, heartwarming, and entirely entertaining. Of course; it came from someone involved with Arrested Development. Should I expect any less?
The first three-fourths of this book are told in the form of email correspondence, magazine articles, even doctors' bills purportedly strung together by fifteen-year-old Bee in an attempt to tell her mother Bernadette's story. Bernadette is the quintessential misunderstood genius. In her thirties, she became one of the few female architects to stand out from the crowd and was eventually awarded a MacArthur genius grant. It's when a project particularly near-and-dear to her heart is destroyed that Bernadette's psyche begins to fray. She and her husband, Elgie, move to Seattle when he takes a job at Microsoft. They live in an abandoned home for girls and their daughter overcomes a congenital heart condition to succeed brilliantly at a charter school, whose wannabe-upper-crust parental committee resents Bernadette's refusal to take part in the community. Bernadette, for her part, is still struggling to get over the heartbreak of her previous life and has developed an agoraphobia so severe that she has hired a virtual personal assistant to take care of her daily errands from India.
As the book begins, Bee is cashing in on the promise her parents made that, if she achieves straight A's, she can have any gift she likes. Her request is for a family trip to Antarctica, a request that sends Bernadette's anxiety skyrocketing. Meanwhile, Bernadette's catty neighbor Audrey is declaring war on Bernadette and her blackberry bushes. Picture the biggest busybody from Desperate Housewives, if you can. I don't know specific characters, but that's what Audrey is. She's a busybody who erroneously believes that her obnoxious behavior is beneficial to and appreciated by everyone else. She wants to host a bruncheon (I don't know if that's a word, but I'm coining it now) to woo upper crust parents to the charter school and Bernadette's blackberry bushes are interfering. To say that Audrey has it out for Bernadette is an understatement, but when the bruncheon ends in catastrophe things begin to spiral out of control for Bernadette. Elgie, concerned that his wife's anxiety and paranoia have become larger than life, attempts to stage an intervention for Bernadette. Unfortunately, Bernadette disappears instead and it's up to Bee to find her.
This book pokes fun at the culture of Microsoft and at people who desperately want to be in the next highest social strata without becoming too mean, but where Semple really excels is in her unfolding of Bernadette. There are certainly aspects of the plot that require some suspension of disbelief, but Bernadette is such a great character. She tried keeping it together but at some point, she snapped and has completely folded into herself in anxiety and desperation. She hates Seattle, the parents at Bee's school, her husband's company, everything around her...except Bee. She loves Bee desperately and wants to do anything she can for her daughter. At the same time, she's an artist whose stunted mental health has fried her ability and opportunity to create.
What else can I say? This book isn't high-minded literature, but it's not really trying to be. It's a send-up of a wacky, soapish storyline that manages to stay completely engrossing -- I couldn't put it down.
And it's touching! It's ultimately about self-acceptance -- finding what makes you happy and learning how to balance that with the expectations of others that you can't shake off. And there's this quote, which I loved: "This is why you must love life: one day you're offering up your social security number to the Russian Mafia; two weeks later you're using the word calve as a verb."
I dare say that if you can't appreciate it, then maybe you just don't get satire ;)
(I kid, I kid.)