Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Maria Semple‘s tightly constructed WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE is written in many formats: e-mails, letters, F.B.I. documents, correspondence with a psychiatrist and even an emergency-room bill for a run-in between Bernadette and Audrey.
When thinking of Bernadette, easily the novel’s main character, the word quirky comes to mind: an individual peculiarity of character, mannerism or foible. 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.
After several miscarriages, Bernadette and husband, Elgin, produce Balakrishna aka Bee Branch, a blue baby born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Tired of the constant emphasis on her health, Bee repeatedly insists that her last surgery was at age 5 and she’s totally fine now and has been for nine and a half years.
Because Bee’s parents indulge her in most things, her request to visit Antarctica becomes a family trip scheduled for winter break. Agoraphobic Bernadette enlists an virtual Indian assistant, Manjula Kapoor, at $.75/hour, to handle the paper work, procure the necessary supplies, secure visas and plane tickets.
Meanwhile, Bernadette’s husband, Elgin, a big shot at Microsoft, is being led astray by his assistant, Soo-Lin Lee. The author uses Ms. Lee’s friendship with one of the Galer Street School ‘gnats,’ Audrey Griffin, also Bernadette’s neighbor, to further the action and flesh out these two main characters.
When Elgin’s clumsy attempts to have Bernadette committed to Madrona Hill, a private mental hospital, fail she disappears and Bee uses the paper trail to piece together her mother’s back story and convince her father to make the trip to Antarctica to locate her beloved parent.
While some of the reviewers characterized, Where’d You Go, Bernadette as: immature, silly and childish with a stupid plot line and a distracting style, Yvonne Zipp, of the Christian Science Monitor wrote, “Semple used to write for the revered cult hit Arrested Development, and she brings plenty of squirming comedy to the novel. 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.”
While Semple’s second novel might not be right for every book club, sample questions are provided below in case your group decides to give it a try.
1. While there seems to be two versions of the incident in which Audrey’s foot is run over by Bernadette’s car, which do you think is the most accurate? What was Semple’s purpose in placing this event at the beginning of the novel?
2. Throughout most of the novel, Audrey has little good to say about Bernadette’s parenting skills, how would you rate Kyle’s upbringing? Would Audrey consider herself a Subaru, a Lexus or a Mercedes Parent? How would she classify Bernadette?
3. Some reviewers found the organization of the book off-putting. Did you lose track of what was happening/who was involved? How did Part 6, The White Continent, affect your over-all judgement of the novel?
4. Discuss Bernadette’s and Elgin’s marriage. What recent factors have driven a wedge into their once harmonious relationship?
5. Since Audrey and Bernadette are at odds for most of the novel, were you surprised when you found out how Bernadette escaped from the bathroom? In your opinion, what prompted Audrey’s actions?
6. Is Bernadette crazy? How did the miscarriages, the loss of the 20-mile house and Bee’s medical condition affect her? Do you agree that the destruction of 20-mile house was nobody’s fault but Bernadette’s? Would you have backed Elgin’s plan to have her committed to Madrona Hill?
8. Was Bee justified in hating her father?
9. Some reviewers found Where’d You Go, Bernadette immature, silly and childish while others called the novel a laugh-out-loud comedy. Which side do you agree with and why?
10. One reader felt that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is really Bee’s story. Do you agree/disagree? If you agree, what would have been a more appropriate title?