Where’d You Go Bernadette?

Today we’ll be chatting about our spring book pick, Where’d You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple.  We both flew through this book and enjoyed every minute of it! Did you?

We each wrote our thoughts below, just thinking about what stood out to us when reading the book and commenting on each other’s posting. We hope this format isn’t too difficult to read and respond to, as we would like to continue the discussion in the comments throughout the day.

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Fair warning, this discussion (and probably many of the comments) will have *SPOILERS* so please don’t read this post if you haven’t finished the book yet.  After you’re done, feel free to revisit this post and share your thoughts with us.

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Sarah’s thoughts:

First off, I loved this book.  You won’t find it on a required reading list twenty years from now, but I will definitely recommend it to all my pals.  Sometimes I get bogged down by really heavy reads that take me a while to finish so it was nice to switch it up with something a little bit lighter.  I love that it was equal parts comedy and drama.  The drama kept me reading, while the comedy propelled me along with laughter. [Katie here: I completely agree! And what a great way to explain why this read is addicting. I was drawn to it during every free moment because of the dramatic aspects but the comedy made it so easy to read.]

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I also really enjoyed the formatting of the book.  Having the story told from Bee’s point of view through documents, notes and her outside perspective of her mom kept the story moving because the reader (like Bee) wasn’t entirely sure what the heck was happening.  I also find I’m more likely to keep reading ‘just one more page,’ if it’s not packed full of text.  For some reason my brain is willing to comprehend and keep going if there’s a little bit of white space or some kind of break in the text and this novel had a lot of that going on. [Katie here: while I was reading this, I was wondering if this type of writing is more appealing to a lot of readers because we’re so used to communicating in short bursts by email and such?]

There were some aspects of Bernadette’s personality that I didn’t quite understand at first, like letting her house fall into disrepair, not wanting to cook, taking care of her errands via an assistant in India, but once you realize the trauma Bernadette experienced it all gets put into perspective.  Being a creative person and knowing how projects tend to become your ‘babies’ I felt so much heartache for Bernadette when reading about the twenty mile house.  I feel like that was definitely a before and after moment in Bernadette’s life and psyche and I can understand how that could screw someone up if they didn’t have a chance to heal properly. [Katie here : Yet again, I agree. I’ve definitely had those depressing days/evenings where I don’t want to cook, be creative, or clean up the house, so I can understand a brief moment of checking out, but not years. On the other hand, we never know how we would respond to something so traumatic. I think what makes Bernadette’s tragedy particularly upsetting is that it wasn’t an accident. It was the direct action of someone who took their tit for tat “game” one step too far.]

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I thought it was a bit of a shame to see all the women (Bernadette, Audrey and Soo-Lin) acting so childish to one another.  I think they all have some baggage that they’re either embarrassed by or weighed down with and instead of being honest and open they all in some way or another, put on a show for each other and the results are disastrous.  Although Bernadette thinks she’s wildly different than all the parents at her daughter’s school, they all have common ground on which they could relate, yet they resist.  It’s easier to make a friend (or at the least an acquaintance) than an enemy.  For me that was a big take-away point.  A lot of drama could have been avoided (of course, we wouldn’t have had a story to read) while personal and family growth could have been harbored if everyone took a moment to relate to one another.  Being a journalist (ie: talking to strangers all.the.time.) and traveler has really helped me open up, talk, share and relate to the new faces I run into every day.  I think Bernadette’s move to Seattle would have been much easier if she and others had that same attitude towards one another.

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One last thing, what did you guys think about those blackberry vines?  I love their key presence in the story.  The vines were the main source of contention between Bernadette and Audrey.  I felt like the roots were symbolic of Bernadette’s past and once they were ripped up, all hell (or mud) broke loose.  I also liked how they made another appearance when Bernadette runs away from her intervention and Elgie is wounded by the overgrowth of vines in their home’s basement.

I’m sorry if that was all over the place.  What did you like and dislike? What struck a chord with you?

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 Katie’s thoughts:

*Even though I knew that the format of this book was part of the experience, most of my reading time happens at night, sometimes snuggled with Alex, othertimes with a sleeping Calder next to me. Either way, it was better to read with the lights off. So I read the book on my phone using the Kindle app. I’ve read a few books this way, and while I’m the first to agree that there’s something special in the tactile experience of holding a book, flipping its pages, and inhaling both the new and old book smells, I’ve grown to love reading on my phone too. I use the black background w/ white text setting, because I think it’s easier on the eyes. For the first time ever, I both highlighted and added notes to sections of the text I wanted to remember. And, as if it weren’t obvious, it is nice to have my book in my pocket – making it so easy to read while waiting in the line at the grocery store, because I really couldn’t put this one down!

I have to say that in so many ways I could relate to Bernadette. I loved:

  • that she called the school moms gnats. {Confession,  I have a nickname for some of the office staff at work. Anyone hiring next week? I may be looking for new work}.
  • when she reprimands Bee and Grace for claiming to be bored (page 43), saying “The sooner you learn it’s on you to make life interesting, the better off you’ll be.” I felt like Maria Semple was in my brain! [Sarah here: I did a little yip when Bernadette said that and a feeling of pride spread throughout my chest!]
  • when David Walker says this about Bernadette: “She’s wearing this backpack with yarn coming out of it so she can knit while she’s standing”. Of course she’s a knitter!
  • and then Paul Jellinek says: “she had forged a distinct point of view, which was, simply to waste nothing.” I’m an over-saver because I want to find a use for every thing. [Sarah here: Calder is probably throwing away your used ziplock baggies as you type this, better go check on him!]
  • that she needed that time away in Antarctica. Oh how I dream about solo retreats, and it’s not because I don’t love my people, it’s because my brain needs to be able to shut down for a moment. When she describes the icebergs and says “every single iceberg filled me with feelings of sadness and wonder. Not thoughts of sadness and wonder, mind you, because thought require a thinker…” and goes on to say that she didn’t think about anyone.

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But enough about me. Now I’m wishing for a follow-up story because I want to follow Bernadette’s adventure as she builds the station at the South Pole.

A few other random thoughts ~

I often think about how we are each born into a certain circumstance, and when we’re kids we are so resilient, being able to roll with the punches and even rationalize situations that others would find bizarre. A great example is Bee’s description of the state of their house relative to the vines: “I knew our blackberry vines were buckling the library floor and causing weird lumps in the carpet and shattering basement windows. But I had a smile on my face, because while I slept, there was a force protecting me.” I don’t think living in the house was completely damaging to Bee, rather it gave her the “grit” that the guidance counselor mentions. I think the kids that have that ability to take a bizarre or even bad situation and turn it into something grand are the resilient kind that will be able to make it when the world throws a curve ball. Did anyone else pick up on this? Or am I reading too much into it?

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Thinking more about where we are and what we make of life at any moment. I like the two completely different, yet accurate descriptions of Antarctica, and it’s just a great reminder of how much your current state of mind impacts your perception of the world around you.

  • From Bee : “it’s three horizontal stripes. On the bottom, there’s the stripe for the water, which is anywhere from black to dark gray. And on top of that, there’s a stripe for the land, which is usually black or white. Then there’s a stripe for the sky, which is some kind of gray or blue.”
  • From Bernadette when talking about the icebergs :”white yes, but blue, too, every blue on the color wheel, deep like a navy blazer, incandescent like a neon sign, royal like a Frenchman’s shirt, powder like Peter Rabbit’s cloth coat, these icy monsters roaming the forbidding black.”

I could totally see paintings in both of their descriptions, and I wouldn’t mind having both pieces of art somewhere in my house. I think I can tackle the stripes of grey… looking for an artist to paint the icebergs.

I think that Elgie and Bernadette had a true partnership, and it was so nice to see. It warmed my heart that Elgie still believed in Bernadette, and showed it by adding her “great escape” to the engraved list of miracles on her necklace. And near the end Bernadette says “I don’t know what Dad and I would be without the other.” [Sarah here: I agree. They both seem like really reasonable people and they look for meaning (or non-meaning in the case of the short affair) behind each other’s actions and at the end of the day are still in love with each other no matter what they’re dealing with.]

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And as if we don’t already stress it enough, the book provided yet another reason to get outside. Elgie explains to Bee that “when your eyes are softly focused on the horizon for sustained periods, your brain releases endorphins”. Strangely enough, I came across this article last week that mentioned the same thing, and now I’ve been letting my eyes focus on the horizon more during my evening dog walks. 

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The book contains a list of questions and topics for discussion, while we didn’t touch on all of them, we thought mentioning a few here may be helpful. But, of course, anything goes in the comments, we just want to hear your thoughts!

  • What are your thoughts on Bernadette’s character?  Has she become unhinged or has she always been a little crazy?
  • When Bernadette relocates from LA to Seattle, she has to deal with being a transplant in a new city. Have you ever moved or even stayed put but switched jobs or schools and had to adjust to an entirely different culture? What was it like?
  • How are Audrey Griffin and Bernadette Fox more alike than they realized?  Have you ever had a rival only to realize later that you were pretty similar?
  • The book has a very playful structure. Do you think it works? Why do you think the author chose it rather than a more straightforward, traditional structure?  Think about other books with unusual structures and how their formats influenced your reading experience.
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette  is, at its core, a story about a woman who disappears, both literally and figuratively.  Were you able to relate to the book? How and why? Do you feel Bernadette’s disappearance was unique, or do all women, in a sense, disappear into motherhood and marriage?

Yay books!

 

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5 thoughts on “Where’d You Go Bernadette?

  1. I no longer have the book in front of me as I gave it away as soon as I finished it, but I completely agree with all of the above.

    Especially the part about the vines. I’m reading a lot of lighter stuff these days to take a break from grad school reading and the lazy reader in me loves easy symbolism. The blatancy of this symbol sacrifices nothing in effect.

    The perfect plane/beach read. I will recommend again and again.

  2. I agree with you ladies, the drama certainly made the read more interesting but towards the end I was getting tired of the charade almost. The writing style, using short bursts, was a creative way to illustrate how Bee was getting her information. As a reader, I do prefer those “walls of text” Sarah mentioned. It’s harder for me to get lost in a book and not feel like I’m “reading to myself” when there are jumps between characters. This book wasn’t hard to concentrate on by any means, but having my many snippets of writing fill my life already, sometimes I want huge paragraphs.

    Honestly, the Bernadette character infuriated me a little bit. She was very childish in her responses to the gnats and didn’t feel the need to communicate effectively with her own family. Maybe because I’m not so creative, but I don’t understand the trauma she experienced related to the destruction like she faced… didn’t she bring it on herself? That was the most irritating part of the story to me. Bernadette, who is obviously a genius, let herself get petty and then was surprised when the “villain” got her back. It was very hard for me to swallow all of Bernadette’s craziness that stemmed from the 20-mile house incident simply because she got what she gave.

    Let me do some more pondering so I can respond to the rest of your points. I did like this book, the adventure was fun, but gosh darn it Bernadette. Take responsibility for your actions!

    • Hey Kris!

      What a great take on the book!

      How funny is it that the same problem caused us to crave two different forms of text? You wanted more text and bigger paragraphs because your life is already full of little snippets, while I wanted the snippets because of the same “life full of snippets” problem. I realized that the difference is probably that you have a bigger chunk of time whenever you do sit down and read, whereas I only have five minutes here or there (either because I’m on the move or because I’m tired and I fall asleep after just five minutes of reading).

      You comments on Bernadette are making me think that I have to go back and re-read some parts (maybe I forgot details by the time I was writing up my reflection?). I do agree that she was childish with the gnats, but in general I didn’t think that there was much she had to say to them. She tried to stay out of their way, and it was so-and-so’s crazy made up foot-running-over story that was just the sort of thing she was trying to avoid. I didn’t think she had much of a communication problem with her family. I always thought that she and Bee were on the same page, while her husband was busy working. It’s true there was a bit of confusion about the online assistant, but even Bernadette was caught off-guard when she found out about it (it’s not like she was hiding it from Elgie). As for the 20-mile house, I do agree that she took it too far, and should not have been as surprised as she was when he destroyed it, but again, I think this is one of those situations where she didn’t realize just how important her neighbor’s reputation was to himself (as important as the house was to her) and when she caused him embarrassment, he tried to inflict the same pain. You’re right though, if she is that smart, she should have known better, and this is a case where she should not have let her emotions take over like she did.

    • Wow, now that I think about it, it did feel like I was reading to myself the entire time even though I was wrapped up in the drama of the story. Bernadette definitely wasn’t an all star communicator, but I think the 20-mile house was a big part of that. She did help create the neighborly feud, but I think she felt like less of the meanie in that sitch. From your POV, I can see how Bernadette could be infuriating. It’s so funny how we can all read the book and have different views! I love it. Thanks for commenting Kris!

  3. **Take all my comments with a grain of salt, it’s been about a month since I’ve finished it and I read so fast. These are my thoughts and feeeeeelings about the book, I am probably misremembering some stuff (and I’m watching Weeds at the moment, the characters are a bit similar and are melding together).

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