The Short Version: Bernadette Fox, one-time genius architect, has settled into a sort of neurotic housewifery in Seattle. But after a serious of hilariously unfortunate events, she disappears – leaving her husband and daughter to try and pick up the pieces and figure out where she went.
The Review: All I knew about this book going in is that the author had written for Arrested Development. That fact alone was enough to ensure that I was excited: after all, that show might be the greatest comedy in the history of comedies. So I was banking on this being a funny book – something that, I’ll admit, was desperately needed. Sometimes, you know, you just need to read something funny.
Happily, this book is hilarious. Or, well, at least the first three-quarters are hilarious. The last quarter is touching and heart-warming (still with some bits of funny) – and therein lies the true Arrested Development touch: that sense of family love overcoming everything for an ending that induces not just a smile from all the laughter but also from the warm happiness that spreads from such a lovely moment.
The novel itself is epistolary, taking the form of emails, IMs, letters, journal entries, faxes, and other documents to make up the story of the Branch/Fox family over this tumultuous winter. It turns out, as we discover about halfway through the book, that Bernadette was a precociously talented architect: won a MacArthur Grant, was on the verge of super-fame… and then a big bad event took place. Her husband’s company got picked up by Microsoft (the satire of the tech-workplace, specifically of Microsoft’s – as they try to be more Google/Facebook-esque – is brilliant. But it’s like saying AD was about the Bluth Company; this is a novel about a crazy family first.) and so they moved to Seattle, where she had a series of miscarriages before Bee was finally born (premature and with heart defects). But Bee has become a precocious young lady in her own right and Elgie has moved up to be one of the most respected tech innovators in the world (fourth-most-popular TEDTalk ever!) and so things are going pretty well, maybe, right?
It’s not worth it for me to describe the spiraling crazy that ensues from Thanksgiving onward – because I genuinely don’t want to spoil a thing. It’s breathlessly funny and wickedly smart and even though you will undoubtedly be able to predict certain aspects of the plot, that doesn’t make them any less entertaining. In fact, your ability to say “OH GOD, I KNEW THAT WAS GONNA HAPPEN!” only makes the book funnier, I think.
After Bernadette’s titularly-implied disappearance, things get a little darker. They’re still funny, don’t get me wrong – but it becomes a darker humor, one colored by really powerful emotions that occasionally seem to get the better of Ms. Semple. The confusion and grief at having potentially lost a parent/spouse seems a little muted in both Bee & Elgie, although that may be due simply to the varied points-of-view. But while I thought the end to’ve been a lovely (and, like I said, smile-inducing) wrap-up, there was a little bit there where I felt like things were moving a little too fast and too perfunctorily for the surviving Branch family members. The book balances very precariously on a razor-thin wire, never falling into the darkness that threatens to overwhelm it here – and I have to give props to Ms. Semple for keeping it at bay… even as I wonder if it could’ve used a little more of that darkness to ground the book a little more firmly in reality.
But who wants reality when you have a fiction as funny as this one? It’s a quibble, really – it doesn’t detract all that much from the book and it allows you, as reader, to continue on your streak of probable-prediction, even though you’ll be more uncertain as the book draws towards its ending.
OH and speaking of the ending: a fitting twist in the tale comes when you get to the third-to-last page only to find that there’s a misprint and pages 324-325 are missing. Page 326 is the last page. TERRIFYING CATASTROPHE, right? At first, I thought it might’ve been some sort of witty meta-trick (coming hot on the heels of another meta-trick…. that might’ve been a SPOILER, I’m sorry) – but no, it was just human error. Or computer error (see, again with the meta-thoughts! Looking at you, Microsoft). Luckily, the fine folks at Little Brown put those pages up on their Facebook and are offering replacement copies for the nusto completists like yours truly. But I cannot tell you of the fear that strikes through a reader’s heart when they see such a devilish conundrum facing them down AT THE LITERAL END OF THE BOOK. Phew.
Rating: 5 out of 5. It’s just damn funny. There’s a whole lot of satire going on, taking aim at so many things and hitting all of them effectively (if not dead-on). Knowing Ms. Semple’s pedigree as an AD writer, you could see the similarities in the go-for-broke pacing and the smart humor that rewards an engaged reader – and the comically absurd and yet altogether too plausible catastrophes that befall all of the people involved in the novel. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go email my virtual assistant Manjula – she lives in India and charges me $0.75 an hour! It’s amazing, this world we live in. Ta!