3 outstanding 2012 novels

In this week's fiction roundup, three main characters go on extraordinary journeys to try to hold on to the remnants of their family.

1. 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette,' by Maria Semple

Two days before Christmas, 15-year-old Bee Branch's mother, Bernadette Fox, disappeared.

Her dad, a Microsoft guru working in the field of artificial intelligence, tells the distraught Bee that a) it's not her fault and b) it's complicated.

“Of course it's complicated. Just because it's complicated, just because you think you can't ever know everything about another person, it doesn't mean you can't try,” says the intrepid teen, who puts together a record of her mother's life from emails, blogs, articles, and official government correspondence in Maria Semple's utterly delightful first novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette.

Before she was Bee's mom, Bernadette Fox was a Los Angeles architect, a legend among college students even though her most famous work is no longer standing. After a project went terribly wrong, Bernadette and her husband, Elgin, relocated to a crumbling girls' reform school in Seattle (the only non-Craftsman dwelling Bernadette could find), where Bernadette became a recluse who rages against the Emerald City's crunchy “connectitude” and five-way traffic stops.

With a house that's deteriorated to the point where gardeners come in weekly to weed-whack the blackberry roots pushing up through the floor, Bernadette outsources basic errands to a virtual assistant in India. Then eighth-grade Bee claims her reward for perfect grades – a family cruise to Antarctica – and Bernadette finds herself panicking about everything from motion sickness to being trapped on a vessel with 149 other people.

After her disappearance, Bee decides that Bernadette must have used the cruise to pull off her vanishing act and is determined to follow her mother literally to the ends of the earth.

Semple used to write for the revered cult hit “Arrested Development,” and she brings plenty of squirming comedy to the novel, which manages to be that rare good read that actually makes you feel good at the end.

Her send-up of Seattle is hilarious, with its Victims Against Victimhood support groups, moms offering organic gardeners swiss chard in lieu of payment, and teachers who are so PC that fourth graders are expected to seriously debate the pros and cons of the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

But the heart of the book belongs to Bee, who, as an admissions counselor puts it, tests off the charts for grit and poise; and her mother, who, for all her neuroses, did a bang-up job of turning out one terrific kid.

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