By Maria Semple, A Suprisingly Funny and Energetic Story Considering It's Basically About A Touchy Recluse
I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple with my book club after being recommended this book by a friend of mine and then my cousin. Apparently, Maria Semple’s daughter is my niece’s classmate. Plus they live in Seattle, where the book is set, and my cousin’s husband used to work for Microsoft, which is the employer of the husband in the book.
Where’d You Go Bernadette, is about a woman, Bernadette Fox, who was once a renown architect and received the MacArthur Genius Grant for the construction of a house called the Twenty Mile House. While still well-known among those in the industry, Bernadette no longer works as an architect and is now essentially a genius recluse who is mildly agoraphobic. She lives with her family in Seattle. Her daughter, Bee, is a young and very smart 13-year-old girl. Bee’s father, Elgin, is sort of a big deal at Microsoft.
Bernadette is difficult, eccentric and does not get along with the other uppity mothers at Bee’s private school. When Bernadette goes off the deep end and disappears just before a planned family trip to Antarctica, Bee sets out to find her.
Book Review: the Good Stuff
I have to give props to the author — for a story that’s basically about mental illness and an unlikable (or at least difficult to like) woman, the book is surprisingly heartwarming and funny.
A lot of the humor is wrapped up in satirizing the out of touch parents and lifestyles of this upper class private school and tech bubble, but it manages to do so with kind of a gentle, even endearing humor, even if Bernadette herself is somewhat caustic and biting. As the book progresses, you start to understand how Bernadette became the way she did, and it ends up being an entertaining and enjoyable journey.
Book Review: Some Criticisms
That being said, out of principle, though, I think I chafed a little at husband character, who is framed as a charismatic and successful guy who is a loving husband and father. Personally, however, I think if you take a moment to consider it, his actions were kind of awful, but because he was sorry he got a free pass from both the author and the characters around him for reasons that I don’t really understand.
I know this phrase gets overused, but if he was a woman, he would never get away with what he did in the book, both in terms of his affair and what he tried to do to his wife. The reaction I got to this comment in my book club was, but the author is a woman, how could it be sexist? To which my response is, well, that’s what it means to live in a patriarchal society — it means we all, men and women, buy into these ideas that men are more level-headed and their bad behaviors are more acceptable. But enough of the soapbox.
So, yeah, I had a hard time swallowing that, and also the whole random Asian mistress thing, which I hated since obviously I get tired of Asian women only being used as romantic side interests (or prostitutes) in stories. Plus, I didn’t love that her character is exactly the stereotypical desperate-to-steal-a-man-type woman that seems more appropriate for a character in a soap opera than a work of literary fiction.
Read it or Skip it?
Overall, it’s an enjoyable book. It’s intelligent and humorous, even if the author herself seems to be subtlety influenced by more non-progressive ideas than she might realize. It’s also just a fun story, and it’s one I think most people would enjoy. See it on Amazon.
Where’d You Go Bernadette Movie Adaptation
Watch the official trailer for the movie. It’s directed by Richard Linklater and stars Cate Blanchette as Bernadette. It will be released by Annapurna Pictures on August 9, 2019.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
Part One: Mom Versus the GnatsBee Branch is an eighth-grader at Galer Street School, a private school in Seattle. She's curious and smart. When she gets straight-As on her report card, she reminds her parents (Elgin and Bernadette) that they promised her a trip to Antarctica if she get perfect grades. They agree to the trip. Bee is accepted into Choate, a private boarding school. Bernadette is a bit of a recluse who does not like other people. She finds the other parents at Bee's school nosey and annoying. Bernadette contacts her virtual assistant (basically an assistant that she only corresponds with digitally), Manjula Kapoor, and asks her to help arrange the trip. Bernadette pays Manjula from her personal account because Elgin doesn't want her to use Manjula's services. Audrey Griffin is their neighbor, a fellow school parent, and has an issue with their blueberry bushes growing into her yard. Audrey gets into an altercation with Bernadette where she tries to confront her, but Bernadette drives off, running over her foot in the process. Audrey tries to send someone to cut the bushes secretly, and Bernadette erects a billboard-sized no trespassing sign at the edge of her yard where Audrey's house is. Elgin leads an important AI project at Microsoft called Samantha 2. Soo-Lin also works there and is friends with Audrey. Soo-Lin gets promoted to working on Elgin's project as his admin assistant. There's a school event at Audrey's place. But because of the weather and landscaping work being done at Bernadette's hillside, it turns into a huge mudslide that wrecks Audrey's house. Audrey flips out at Bernadette. Bernadette withdraws following the incident and no longer wants to go to Antarctica. Elgin contacts a doctor regarding getting her admitted to Madrona Hill (mental health facility) for in-patient treatment (essentially, having Bernadette involuntarily committed). Bee was a preemie after a series of miscarriages, and Bernadette devoted herself to the baby's health when she was little since Bee had health problems. Their house was bought as a fixer-upper but Bernadette, a former architect, never got back to fixing up the house even as Bee got better and older.
Part Two: Bernadette Past and PresentBernadette is known for her construction of the Twenty Mile House, a house built from materials in a twenty-mile radius. However, it was surreptitiously purchased and immediately destroyed by someone who disliked her (Nigel Mills-Murray). The purchaser had been the owner of a neighboring house that was being built, and who was unhappy that she was using the scraps/leftovers from the construction to help build the Twenty Mile House. Bernadette and Nigel also had disagreements over some legal/land use issues since the effectively shared a driveway. After the house was demolished, in conjunction with her series of miscarriages, Bernadette felt defeated and retreated from the world.
Part Three: Menace to SocietyOnce Soo-Lin begins working on Samantha 2, Elgin and Soo-Lin become closer and begin commiserating about their respective spouses. Soo-Lin is very impressed by Elgin professionally and feels that he is being victimized by being married to Bernadette. Elgin finds out from the FBI that the virtual assistant service Bernadette has been using ("Manjula") is actually attached to a Russian crime syndicate, and that she has given them all sorts of personal information (passport info, etc). The FBI manages to intercept a request from "Manjula" for Power of Attorney.
Part Four: InvadersBecause of the mudslide, Audrey and her husband and son (Kyle) at staying at a hotel. The hotel gets a complaint that Kyle is smoking weed and partying loudly in his room. Audrey flips out at the Night Manager of the hotel, and the police have to intervene. Elgin arranges for his brother (Van) to come into town to watch Bee when the mental health facility people come for Bernadette. He also contacts Choate to see if Bee can be admitted early. Dr. Janelle Kurtz tells Elgin that he'd have to meet Bernadette first to determine if she needs a psychiatric hold and to give her a chance to submit voluntarily, since it is an extreme action. They plan the intervention during Bernadette's scheduled dentistry appointment. Bernadette ends up coming across the intervention group at her house instead. Elgin, Soo-lin and Dr. Kurtz are all there. the FBI agent (Agent Strang) also happens to be there to speak to Elgin as well. They tell her about Manjula being part of a crime syndicate, ad she and Elgin are arguing in a situation that is quickly escalating. Finally, Bernadette ducks into the bathroom and escapes out the window.
Part Five: Dangers PassedWeeks later, Bernadette is still missing and Bee is now at Choate, but not doing well, and they request that she be sent home. Soo-Lin and Elgin are a couple, with Elgin paying for her to live in a nicer house. Soo-Lin thinks she might be pregnant. They find out from a credit card charge for a boat ride that Bernadette is in Antarctica. The boat is returning and set to dock in Argentina. Elgin and Soo-Lin go to the Argentinian port to intercept her, but they can't find her. They receive a captain's report of Bernadette's movements on the ship (based on her scanning her access card). It indicates she was drinking at the bar a lot and jumped off or fell overboard at some point. The narrative moves to Audrey's POV where we find out that Audrey was the one who originally helped Bernadette escape from the window of her house. Soo-Lin had updated Audrey on the situation, who felt guilty. She had learned that Elgin contacted the mental health facility as a result of Bernadette driving over her foot and wrecking her house (due to the mudslide). The problem? Audrey knew that it was a lie. She had fabricated everything. Bernadette never drove over her foot (Audrey was pretending), and Audrey realizes that the mudslide happened because Bernadette removed her blackberry bushes, exactly as Audrey had insisted she do. Audrey had found out about the intervention, drove over there to intervene, and ended up helping Bernadette escape. Meanwhile, Soo-Lin admits to herself that she and Elgin aren't really together. They had sex once when he was emotionally vulnerable, and she got pregnant. Now he's trying to buy her off with a house, but they aren't really a couple. Elgin tells her that he and Bee are going to Antarctica (without Soo-Lin).
Part Six: The White ContinentOn the ship, Bee thinks they are there to find Bernadette. Elgin thinks they are there to help Bee get closure. Bee talks to the crew members who remember Bernadette as the woman who jumped off the ship and killed herself. Bee gets upset and insists they are wrong. Bee and Elgin have a heart-to-heart. He tells her that he left Microsoft and that he hired a bounty-hunter to try to find Bernadette. The ship stops at a station (Palmer Station), but it's only for scientists to embark or disembark. Bee and Elgin realize Bernadette could have slipped off the ship here without scanning out. Bee ducks off the ship with Eglin's help and, sure enough, finds Bernadette alive and well at Palmer Station.
Part Seven: The Runaway BunnyBack at school, Bee gives a copy of her story and the documents she's been collecting to her teacher, Mr. Levy (basically this collection of documents is the book we've been reading). Her teacher likes it and suggests she complete it. Bernadette tells Bee she never meant to run away from them, only from the intervention -- she thought they (Elgin and Bee) would still go on the trip to Antarctica and meet them there. When she was on the ship though, she found out about a project to build a research station at Palmer Station, and ended up being inspired to help them build it. (She wrote to Bee, but the letter never made it to her). Bernadette tells Bee that she's going to finish the research station, Bee's not going to boarding school (too many east coast rich kids) and that they are going to move into a new home when she returns.
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