Bernadette is a reclusive, famous architect who received a MacArthur genius grant and has only designed and built one building in her career. After a conflict with her neighbor over said building, she retreats in self-imposed exile with her husband Elgin when he relocates to Seattle to work for Microsoft as a popular and influential engineer. They have one daughter, Balakrishna, nicknamed Bee, who has survived a heart defect and is finishing up middle school at a local private school. Bee is gifted and funny and she adores her quirky mother. As a reward for graduating from middle school with perfect grades, Bee asks her parents for a family cruise to Antarctica. Bernadette, who is just one short step away from agoraphobic and who, in general, is not a fan of people, wants to come up with a way to avoid the trip. As she thinks of ways to escape, she contracts for a virtual personal assistant in India to handle all the mundane daily details of her family's life. But when Manjula turns out to be rather different than expected, it turns everything upside down.
The novel is told using a narrative collage. It is comprised of emails, letters, memos, first person narration by Bee, official documents, and bills and it works surprisingly well for the hodge podge. Each piece of the narration expands on the characters, not only the Branch family itself, but also Audrey, their crazy neighbor and fellow school parent, and Elgin's new assistant, another fellow school parent, Soo-Lin. The tale is off the wall outrageous but it romps along at a great pace. There are laugh out loud moments and it is definitely a witty and thorough indictment of Seattle's culture (or as Bernadette sees it, complete lack of culture). Bernadette is an eccentric and unpredictable character whose subjugation of her creative spark has led her to a place she doesn't recognize and the book posits the question whether the lack of a creative outlet can lead to mental illness. When a mental health intervention results in Bernadette actually going missing without a trace, Bee puts this novel together to find not only her mother but the Bernadette who has been absent for so long. A fun and entertaining read, the novel is like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, not huge ups and downs, just careening crazily on the edge of losing control and giggling all the way.