I have a great fondness for books that I think can more generally be classified as contemporary comedies of manner. Diane Johnson's French novels, like L'Affaire and L'Divorce; Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club; Cathleen Schine's Rameau's Niece--you get the picture. They are witty, cerebral, often romantic but just as often anti-romantic; usually familial. Above all, they require a light, deft touch.
Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette? falls into this confectionary category. The story is about a family of three that has somehow ended up living in a monstrous old decaying house in Seattle, which at least one member of the family thinks of as the remotest hinterlands. Bernadette Fox is a very eccentric former architect, her husband Elgin Lane is a highly esteemed but very abstracted Microsoft developer, and their daughter Bee is both precocious and kind. This is the story of their unraveling.
If I tell you, as almost everyone who writes about this book will, that Semple used to write for Arrested Development, you should have a pretty good idea of the style of its humor. Told with an equal degree of skill in a variety of literary forms--the email, fax, magazine interview, PR memo and so on--the story gently skewers the upwardly mobile classes of Seattle. Except for the Microsoft bit, a lot of this book could have been set in certain Westside neighborhoods of L.A., but, especially through the voice of Bernadette Fox, Semple reserves some particular barbs for Seattle itself.
The book opens with Bee's reminder that her parents had promised her the granting of a wish if she maintained a certain high standard in school. Her wish turns out to be a trip to Antarctica. This would be a tall order in most families, but not this one. However, though she can't back out of her promise, Bernadette doesn't really want to go. She begins to figure out an escape route.
In a subplot, the private school that Bee attends is hosting a fundraiser to attract some "Mercedes parents"--i.e., clients from an economic bracket just slightly above their own. Subsequent preparations do not always bring out the best in people.
If there is one downside to the story, it may be that it centers a little too much on the "First World problems" of a very privileged class of people, Mercedes driving or not. On the other hand, Semple has a very good ear for the way people who are unaware of their great good fortune talk to themselves and to each other. The genteel warfare that goes on over the Galer school fundraiser is expertly observed. But Semple's humor is of a type that never puts any of these people absolutely beyond redemption.
And as a counterpoint to all of this, we have Bee, who is privileged in a very different sort of way, because she should never have survived in the first place. She grounds the book because she is not a satiric character, because she is steadfast and true, and because she's going to find out where Bernadette went, no matter what.