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The Lady Vanishes

Aug 27, 2012

It has been observed, a lot but not enough, that novels by men and women get treated differently. When men write about marriage and family, they're rewarded with serious reviews and prestigious prizes and important-looking book jackets that have hardly any pink on them. (And sometimes even with magazine covers.) When women do it, it's chick lit. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is a novel about marriage and family, and it arrives wrapped in a vaguely erotic cover--a cartoonish echo of Lolita, or maybe Fifty Shades of Teal. But it deserves to be taken seriously.

The Bernadette of the title is an ex-genius, a radical and incandescently brilliant architect who flamed out early. When the book begins, she has left her talent untouched for 20 years; instead, she has focused on raising her daughter Bee (short for Balakrishna) and loathing the city she lives in (Seattle, where "you're allowed to cough but only into your elbow, and any request, reasonable or unreasonable, is met with 'no worries'").

With no outlet for its prodigious energies, Bernadette's brain is slowly melting down. She fusses over Bee, who was born with a weak heart, and hoards pills and falls asleep in public and feuds with the other parents at Bee's school, an institution that is so far beyond politically correct that the students, in the name of open-mindedness, debate both the cons and the pros of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. "If you don't create," a former colleague tells Bernadette, "you will become a menace to society." She's getting there.

Meanwhile, Bernadette's husband Elgin hasn't noticed. He is, unlike her, a practicing genius; he delivers legendary TED talks and makes a colossal salary at Microsoft. Bee--who's 15 and gifted and perfectly healthy, thank you--is, like most 15-year-olds, an exquisitely sensitive emotional seismometer, and she has inherited her mother's anger along with her intelligence. Promised a reward for her good grades, Bee chooses a family trip to Antarctica during Christmas break. What could possibly go wrong.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a social satire, which is to say that it explains what is sick and sad about American life while making you laugh. Semple constructed the book as an epistolary novel, an intricate mosaic of letters and e-mails and police reports and other documents. Formally, this gives all the characters free rein to explain why they're so angry and misunderstood to everybody but the person they should be explaining it to. Bernadette's neighbor is angry about the blackberries in Bernadette's backyard; Elgin wants Bernadette committed; Elgin's assistant wants to sleep with him; Bernadette wants her virtual personal assistant in India, who is the only person she can be honest with, to get gray-market pharmaceuticals for her.

Halfway through the novel--as the title implies and the flap copy tells us, so it's not really a spoiler--Bernadette vanishes, which forces all of them to stop misunderstanding one another and start trying to understand themselves. (What with this book and Gone Girl, it's the summer of disappearing women.) I was somewhat vexed by the final explanation for her disappearance--there is a limit, it turns out, to the things I want to see done in the name of frustrated genius--but that in no way prevented my being stunned and transported by this extraordinarily powerful and intelligent novel, which comes with a heartfelt blurb from one of those male authors who get taken so seriously, Jonathan Franzen. Clever as they are, Bernadette and her family have to learn the same lesson that another tribe of geniuses, Salinger's Glass family, learned half a century ago in Franny and Zooey: "I don't know what good it is to know so much and be smart as whips and all if it doesn't make you happy."

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