Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Discussion: Where'd You Go Bernadette

Co-authored with Whitney Torres

Welcome to the very first book discussion of our Book Club collaboration with Wit& Spice. As our readers may know, our first book is Maria Semple’s mixed-media, comedic novel Where’d You Go Bernadette.

I realize you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but this novel’s quirky little face kept popping up in every bookstore I frequented. Displayed on their best-seller table, the book depicts a cartoonish doodle of a lady, complete with red lipstick, scarf, and over-sized sunglasses. Her surprised little expression and the book’s praises caught my attention and motivated me to propose it as our first book club selection.

Before we dive into the discussion, we friendly caution that—if you haven’t yet finished the book—ye be warned, there be spoilers ahead.


While most books can be easily summed up in a sentence or less, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" refuses to be shoved into a single description. I loved that about this story.

Few authors could concocted a tale with as many twists and turns without it sounding utterly ridiculous. Maria Semple weaves the tale of a once-famous architect, a high-ranking Microsoft employee, and their brainy daughter -- all living in a rainy little corner of Seattle. Seems pretty normal, right? Add in a gaggle of Seattle school moms, an FBI investigation, and the Russian mafia disguised as a virtual assistant from India.

Then you have a story that you'll not soon forget. 

Semple leaves traditional narrative style behind and tells the story through a series of emails, memos, letters -- even bills and receipts. It reminded me of another one of my favorite reads, Love Rosie by Cecelia Ahern. Not everyone is on board with this style of writing, but personally I love it. I think it's such a fun and interesting way to piece a story together. 


1. the use of mixed-media

Several reviewers lauded Semple’s use of mixed media in this novel. What did you think of it? Did you find it distracting or well-executed? Personally, I love the use of mixed-media in creative writing. The mixed-media format accentuates that this story is about Bee piecing together the facts and lies about her mother’s disappearance. As you read the novel, some of the “pieces” overlap or become disjointed, just as they might in real life. You can imagine Bee’s confusion as she fits the pieces together to create the multi-faceted story of her mother’s life. My only complaint about Semple’s execution of mixed media is the use of faxes as personal correspondence. …I mean really, who uses a fax that way?

2. a love-hate relationship with the characters

When I first began reading this book, I loved 15 year-old Bee…and disliked all the  others, including Bernadette. I saw her as a whiny, neurotic grump-butt who wasted her day doing…well, not much. Elgie seemed removed, a cold, absentee parent focused entirely on his career,  while the fluttering flock of private-school moms seemed a bit too intense, fakey, and rude. (But then again, we did always view them through Bernadette’s over-sized sunglasses.) When Elgie began his scheme to have Bernadette committed, my dislike for his character intensified, although I was inclined to agree that Bernadette did need professional help. Yet as the book progressed, my feelings for the characters did change. Reading about Elgie’s confusion and angst over Bernadette’s disappearance provoked some sympathy for his character. Once we discover Bernadette’s past life, finally find her in Antarctica, and realize that she did try to contact her family, my opinion of her character did a complete about-face. Her actions seemed less selfish and more pitiful. She was a creative soul, sucked dry by her career failures, her miscarriages, and other’s misjudgments. 

But isn't it so easy to let that exact thing happen to us? We squelch our personal happiness and let our relationships erode under the burden of work and the fear of “what others might think.” Bernadette did what many never have the bravery to do: she refused to bend backward any longer and made a drastic change.

3. the use of setting as an objective correlative for Bernadette’s psyche

One thing that stood out throughout the entire novel was Semple’s stylistic use of setting as an objective correlative for Bernadette. The two main examples would be their home Straight Gate and later Antarctica. We learn that Bernadette bought Straight Gate, an abandoned, dilapidated girl’s school, with the intention of re-designing it as her family home. Just as she did with the Beeber Bifocal factory, Bernadette aimed to transform something empty, ugly, and useless into something loved, functional, and beautiful. But hher creative outlets stymied, Bernadette fell into a half-life and moved into Straight Gate without renovating even one aspect of it. Semple repeatedly describes Straight Gate’s faded glory, it’s crumbling walls, jammed doors, and rotten floors. There’s even one scene in which Bee’s friend screams that a ghost is moving under the rugs when it’s actually blackberry vines poking up through the foundation and floor to pucker the carpets. How awful is that? Like Bernadette, the house is crumbling to the point of collapse and is viewed as an eyesore and oddity to other women in the community.
In total opposition to Straight Gate, Semple then gives us Bernadette in Antarctica. She describes it the vast frozen landscape as a vicious place, demanding of its inhabitants. In this intense, harsh place, Bernadette finds herself again—as does her daughter Bee and husband Elgie. Faced with the architectural design challenge of creating a research station at the South Pole, Bernadette regains a sense of purpose and becomes a focused, fulfilled person once again. She rises to the challenge of Antarctica, becoming hard, resilient, driven. Why Antarctica? Because how much more exotic can you get? While Straight Gate teemed with life, like the invasive blackberry vines and brambles, but symbolized Bernadette’s artistic death, the frozen desert of Antarctica, with its white snow and blue ice, perhaps symbolized Bernadette’s redemption.

4. the overall theme

In my opinion, Semple’s overall theme would be the desperate need to be yourself. Bernadette spent years squelching her creativity and hiding from the world—only to lose herself and her
family in the process. Fortunately, her daughter Bee refused to let her mother remain lost.
Bernadette was attempting to be a stay-at-home, private-school, SUV-driving mom, but was
truly an award-winning architect and creative genius. When faced with failure, she abandoned
her true identity and strove to be someone she was not. However, as exemplified by the end of the novel, it’s better to admit who you are—your dreams, your fears, your failures, your successes—rather than to let yourself crumble. After all, as Bee and Elgie demonstrated, your loved ones love you. They chose you. If you suddenly cease to be you, eve for some well
intentioned reason, you’re only hurting them too.

Where'd You Go, Berndette? is one of those stories you'll pick up again and again, trust me. It has easily slipped its way onto our all-time favorites list. Now what did you think of the book? Feel free to use our discussion points as spring-boards or tell us your own thoughts. We're excited to hear!

Stay tuned for updates on our next read!


  1. I found this book to be fun, easy to read, and entertaining. As a mother I’m mildly horrified, lol. I think sometimes you just need to get over yourself, your anxieties, put on a happy face and make the best of it. (Be resourceful where you are at- hell, rehab your house) After all, eventually the kid will grow up, and you can live where you want and essentially do what you want. You don’t sacrifice your child for your art. YOU JUST DON’T. But all personal judgment aside (it’s is just a book) there is a balance to everything.

    I did have a love-hate relationship with the characters. I loved Bernadette’s amusing and long-winded emails to “Manjula”, Elgin’s love of fitness and hard work ethic and the eccentric neighbor mom next door. I hate that all the adult characters are all pretty much self-serving, while Bee is the only one not concerned for her own self or interests, which is pretty unheard of for a 14-year-old. (Although, the eccentric neighbor lady pulled through, eventually)

    I will have to admit from the time Bee and her dad get on the ship up to the end of the book didn’t really flow (IMO). Bee has this huge fit about it being Elgin’s fault that Bernadette left, but when her dad was like “Oh hey, Soo-Lin is pregnant” , Bee is all “That’s okay dad” about it. It’s pretty much left unresolved. Plus Bernadette doesn’t like that Bee would be living in a boarding school, because she’d miss her too much, but she wants to stay in Alaska away from her husband and kid, so she can get out her creative energy?

    Anyway, like I stated I found it an easy and fun read from an entertainment standpoint. The characters from a likeable stand point? Meh, but I don’t think they were written with the intention to be liked. Their human and messy, much like a lot of people (even probably a lot of people we choose to love despite their faults, selfish or otherwise).

    1. Emily, I agree with your point about sacrificing your child for your art. On one hand, I appreciate that Semple seemed to be saying "don't sacrifice your own identity." Bending over backwards to be something you're simply not just hurts everyone. But at the same time, I feel that sacrifice is a key component of parenthood. It's a key component of any love, in my opinion.


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