Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.
To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.
Disney Corporate Headquarters/Burbank Photo credit: DrWhoAnon
I was so enamored of the book I couldn't help telling him the whole sad/funny story, how one of her jobs was working for Michael Graves, the real architect who designed the Disney building down the road from us in Burbank, where Bernadette was charged with designing the mens' room. Another architectural job was being part of the quality control team assigned to assess the beautiful pale travertine marble used to clad the Getty Center. Again the fictional Bernadette worked for the real architect, Richard Meier. I remember being enthralled by the entire construction process back when the museum was first built on a stunning hillside overlooking the 405 in Los Angeles. I also told him how one of her first designs was repurposing a eyeglass factory in Venice and how after weeks of just staring at the boxes of left behind lenses and frames she finally had them knitted together to form walls, screens really. And, of course, the tale of her most famous design, the 20 Mile House which I won't go into just in case you haven't read this wild and wonderful novel yet. That story is just too good to spoil.
The Getty Center/ Los Angeles Photo credit: DogMamon
Part of the appeal of Semple's work is that fanciful blending of the real and imaginary; the Forrest Gump approach if you will. There's something so magical and subversive about putting fictional characters in the real world where they interact with important or historical figures; I can't put my finger on what it is that makes it so compelling, I just know it's a kick. The whole book is a kick really, told through a series of pilfered emails and letters and transcribed voice mails that the daughter Bee puts together in book form.
Part of the appeal is the fresh, crisp writing and the hilarious and snarky outlook Semple gives to her characters; the hilarious insight into modern culture, the immersion into the world of MicroSoft, Bernadette's hatred of the gnats aka the parent body at Bee's school and Seattle's many Canadians in residence had me snickering as did the overly enthusiastic fundraising voice of Ollie O., the school's new principal, and the unforgettable Soo Lin and Audrey. Semple creates such original yet immediately recognizable characters built upon the types most of us know all too well from our own social networks.
As the title suggests, Bernadette goes missing, but she does so in both real and symbolic ways. At the heart of the book is the beautiful little Bee who loves and appreciates her quirky mother and a not so subtle message; Bernadette is a good wife and fantastic mother BUT she's also an artist who has to create otherwise she'll become 'a menace to society.' When I started telling my son all about the novel too, I realized I better just write up my thoughts to share with you, the kind readers of this blog, one of my little endeavors that keeps me from completely freaking out, retreating from reality and maybe, just maybe, becoming a menace to society too. Just so you know.
Bernadette let life kick her ass and lost her own way along the way; happily Maria Semple gives us a grand adventure where hopes and dreams can be rerouted. I went absolutely wild for this unusual, funny, and inspiring book and as luck would have it, the novel is bound for moviedom. Remember we talked about that back at the beginning of 2013, with Annapurna's Megan Ellison producing? While Semple could write the screenplay herself - her credits include Arrested Development and Mad About You - at this writing those modern marvels of adaptation, Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter (The Fault in Our Stars, The Spectacular Now, Paper Towns and the original script, 500 Days of Summer) are supposedly writing the screenplay. I REALLY hope this comes to pass, I really can't wait to see the remarkable 20 Mile House brought to life by a genius production designer in her own right.
Can't wait to see Bernadette there!
RICHARD LINKLATER IN TALKS TO DIRECT!
UPDATED: 3/7/2015 (originally published 10/14/2014)
I hope this comes to pass! The screenplay is complete and Boyhood director Richard Linklater is in talks to direct. He would be an amazing choice! If you've seen Boyhood, you know that while it's about a boy, it's also about mothers and about fathers and about life. He really knows people, and their mangled efforts at relationships. While Boyhood has catapulted Linklater into the national consciousness, he's been working at his craft since the late 1980's. Note to self: Be sure to check out Before Sunrise and Before Sunset before re-watching Before Midnight again.