I’m just going to come out and say it: I don’t think I’ve have such pure enjoyment, such entertainment, from a book for quite some time as I did from Maria Semple’s wonderful debut.
It’s quite astonishing, actually, to think that this assured, experimental, thoroughly unusual book is a debut. Semple writes with the perfectly tempered, and wonderfully wicked, wit of a Jonathan Franzen or a Kate Atkinson (both of whom, in fact, effuse on the jacket). Take her portrayal of the passive-aggressive Seattle moms that the fabulously eccentric Bernadette labels the ‘gnats’. Or the terrible ‘progressive’ school that her daughter Bea attends, with its vomitacious grade system: ‘S (Surpasses Excellence), A (Achieves Excellence), and W (Working towards Excellence)’.
But Semple also writes with compassion for her central characters, with a deep understanding of their quirks and neuroses. These are, as Franzen commented, people in ‘real emotional pain’. The tight bonds that exist between the members of the little family at the novel’s centre feel authentic, forged as they have been by their great love for one another, and their mutual weathering of past disaster and tragedy.
When these bonds are tested by the machinations of the small-minded community that surrounds them, the reader feels it as an outrage. That Bernadette, Elgie and Bea might not overcome this new challenge to their endearingly dysfunctional brand of happiness is an awful possibility. It is imperative to keep reading, just to check that they’re all going to be OK.
This is my excuse, anyway, for reading the book in a greedy, antisocial, two daylong binge, the way one might normally consume a particularly compulsive thriller. I simply can’t recommend it highly enough.