Where’d You Go, Bernadette?


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Book Review

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

Bee Branch, whose real name is Balakrishna Branch, is in her last year at Galer Street School in Seattle. Bee was born with a heart defect and had three open-heart surgeries during the first five years of her life. Her parents are Elgin and Bernadette Branch.

Because Bee received the highest grades all through her school career at Galer, she expects her parents to take her to Antarctica as they promised years ago. They agree. Elgin is a Microsoft vice president and rides the Microsoft train to work. He has given a TEDtalk about the project he is working on, which is called Samantha 2. It’s the fourth most-watched TEDtalk.

Bernadette was an architect who won a Genius Grant for one of her designs. When it was unfairly destroyed, she moved to Seattle with her husband and never worked on another house. She had a number of miscarriages and then told God He could take her ability to create if he saved Bee’s life. Now she doesn’t like leaving her home, but she will leave it for Bee.

Bernadette asks her personal assistant, Manjula Kapoor, who lives in India, to take care of their Antarctica itinerary. Bernadette wants Manjula to use her personal account to pay for his services because she’d told her husband that she’d stop using Manjula. Manjula charges 75 cents an hour to work for her.

Bee’s home is on a hill. It used to be a school. Because of the rules surrounding this building, which is a historic site, nothing is done to keep it up. When it rains, the family catches the water in buckets. Also, plants and vines are growing through many of the floorboards.

Ollie-O, who works for Galer, wants to make Galer an elite school. Soo-Lin and Audrey are Galer parents. Soo-Lin is also an admin at Microsoft. Audrey tries to speak to Bernadette at the pick-up line at Galer about the blackberries from Bernadette’s yard, which are creeping into her yard. Bernadette doesn’t notice Audrey on foot in the car line and leaves without acknowledging her. Audrey goes to the emergency room and claims Bernadette ran over her foot.

Bee wants to go to a boarding school called Choate for high school, and she is accepted into the school. The school wants her to skip a year when she arrives in the fall. Bernadette is upset that Bee will be leaving, but she wants what is best for her.

Audrey takes someone to look at Bernadette’s blackberry bushes. Bernadette catches them. She agrees to remove the bushes and has her assistant take care of the details. Then she asks Manjula to have a billboard-sized sign put near Audrey’s land that warns against trespassing.

The area receives a lot of rain, even more than normal. Audrey’s son, Kyle, is caught selling his mother’s Vicodin at school. She gets him out of the consequences. Audrey will be hosting a prospective parent brunch for Galer and is horrified by the sign on Bernadette’s property.

Soo-Lin’s entire team at Microsoft is let go, but she is moved with a few others to Studio C and given a promotion. She becomes Elgin’s admin and is enamored by him.

Galer’s prospective parent brunch goes on as planned at Audrey’s home, until a mud slide oozes into Audrey’s house. Without the bushes to stop it, the mud from Bernadette’s hill keeps flowing. Only the large billboard sign that is pressed against Audrey’s windows keeps the mud from hurting anyone. Bee feels that from this point forward her mother is never the same.

Elgin doesn’t know what has happened to Bernadette, but she has changed. He doesn’t think Bernadette should go to Antarctica. He wants her to go to Madrona Hills for treatment. He writes to Dr. Kurtz, asking her to treat Bernadette there.

Audrey and her family now live in a motel as work is done to make their home livable again. Elgin and Soo-Lin go to lunch to talk about Bernadette. She tells him about the sign that Bernadette put up and the mudslide at Audrey’s house.

The principal wants to talk with Audrey about her son, Kyle, who now uses profanity in class. Audrey doesn’t return his calls. Then the police break up a party hosted by Kyle at the hotel.

Elgin meets Soo-Lin on the train. He is upset, and Soo-Lin cheers him up. She convinces Elgin that Bernadette is abusing his good nature.

The FBI contacts Elgin. Manjula, who is a Delhi Virtual Assistant, is part of a shell company for a crime syndicate. Bernadette has given him all their personal information. Also, Manjula has asked for the power of attorney while the family is away, which the FBI intercepted. They send Elgin all of Bernadette’s emails. He is horrified by what he reads. He doesn’t think Bernadette is mentally stable.

Elgin asks Choates to take Bee in January, instead of once she graduates, since she is so far ahead. He sets up a meeting with the director of Madrona Hills so Bernadette can get help and asks his brother to watch Bee. He has a brief affair with Soo-Lin, and she becomes pregnant.

The last time Bee sees her mom, Bernadette is wearing dark sunglasses and is in the doorway of the auditorium. She watches Bee play her flute for a first-grade performance.

Elgin plans an intervention for Bernadette with Dr. Kurtz. As they start it, Bernadette can’t believe what is happening. She escapes through the bathroom window and seems to disappear.

Bee is sent to Choate. Elgin buys Soo-Lin a house to raise her kids and his child. Audrey moves to Utah so her son can get help at a wilderness rehab immersion program. They have both been humbled, but Audrey feels she is moving in the right direction. Unbeknownst to anyone, she sends Bee all the emails and documents that she feels are important to finding Bernadette.

Elgin learns that Bernadette went on their Antarctica trip alone. He tries to meet her when the passengers disembark, but she doesn’t show up. The captain and others believe that she drowned at sea.

Choate sends Bee home. She refuses to have anything to do with Soo-Lin. Elgin and Bee live at their old house. Since their tickets are not refundable, they decide to go to Antarctica themselves to find closure. Eventually they find Bernadette, who is working to get permission to design a facility in Antarctica. She sent a note to Bee in care of Galer. Since Bee never returned to the school, she didn’t get the letter.

Elgin realizes that life in Seattle had been killing Bernadette because she was a creative who was not doing anything with her imagination and skills. Though Elgin and Bernadette must work their way back to a place of trust, Bee is confident they can all be a family again.

Christian Beliefs

Soo-Lin talks about God’s plan and how He hasn’t forsaken her when, after walking in the rain for three blocks, she gets to see Bernadette sleeping on a couch at a pharmacy. Later, Audrey mentions that God is the driver of Soo-Lin’s bus. Audrey says she’s a Christian woman. She says she’ll pray for Bee, but only to get back at Bee’s family.

Bee lets Audrey know that real Christians don’t talk to Bernadette the way that Audrey just did. Bernadette told God that if He kept Bee alive, she would give up her ability to be a creative architect. Bernadette was raised Catholic and lost her faith. She didn’t like Bee going to youth group meetings with her friend Kennedy because she didn’t want her to become a Jesus freak.

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular mentions that Jesus is God’s Son, the King of kings. The Nativity scene, created by people and live animals, is enacted on stage. The wise men enter on an elephant, ostrich and camel. Then someone sings “O Holy Night” and a chorus joins in. Then the audience joins in. They raise their hands and wiggle their fingers.

Bee thinks that church people are oppressed because they are only free to open up like they did at the show when they are with other church people. Bee puts up her hands and leans back her head to see what it feels like; tears fall from her eyes. Bee wonders if religion is like falling off a cliff and hoping that Someone bigger than you will take you to where you need to go.

When Audrey is with her son in Utah, she is trusting God to guide her. Audrey says that Soo-Lin, Elgin and the baby are in her prayers.

Other Belief Systems

There is mention of baby Krishna, whose name is Balakrishna. This child is Vishnu, the incarnation. Bernadette became an atheist in college.

Authority Roles

Elgin and Bernadette both love Bee. Elgin is seldom home because of his work with Microsoft, but when he is home, he is a good parent. Bee is the center of Bernadette’s universe. She is an active mother, though she doesn’t like leaving the house. But she will leave if it is beneficial to Bee.

Audrey loves her child, Kyle, but initially she doesn’t make Kyle take responsibility for his actions. When he gets into trouble with the law, Audrey takes him to a wilderness-training program in Utah.

Soo-Lin loves and takes care of her children. She looks forward to taking care of her new baby.

Profanity & Violence

The words h—, d–n, rotter, f-bomb, p—, s—, b–tards, b–ch, s—canned, p–ck, a–, d–k, ape-s—, a–hole, and the f-word in various forms are used. The names God, Christ or Jesus are used with bless him, my, oh, holy, oh my and alone. An unknown person says, holy with the word s— but there are dashes after the s so the word isn’t spelled out. Another unknown person says the f-word, but once again, there are dashes after the letter f. Audrey says, “Thank the Lord” once, but it seems more of an exclamation than an actual expression of thanksgiving. Other words used include bra, suck and poop.

Before they leave for Antarctica, Bernadette tells her husband to keep her away from guns when they go through the Drake Passage. She is sure she’ll get so seasick that she’ll want to harm herself. Bee slaps Audrey when Audrey confronts Bernadette about the mudslide being Bernadette’s problem.

Audrey pulls back Mr. Koenig’s head (who is the motel manager) so he doesn’t open room 1605, which is Kyle’s room.

Sexual Content

Elgin and Soo-Lin sleep together one night after they have too much to drink. The scene is not graphically described. Soo-Lin tries to make this incident into a full relationship or in the least continue their affair, especially after she finds out she’s pregnant. Elgin does not continue with the physical relationship, but he works to take care of Soo-Lin and the coming baby.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments

Prejudice: Bernadette fears Canadians because she feels they think everyone is equal. She believes some people are superior to others.

Drugs/Alcohol: Kyle is caught selling his mother’s prescription drugs to other kids at school. He is shown to imbibe in both drugs and alcohol. When the hotel manager opens Kyle’s door to show a party is going on, the kids who are drinking and doing drugs. The room is filled with drug paraphernalia.

Movie Tie-In: Producers often use a book as a springboard for a movie idea or to earn a specific rating. Because of this, a movie may differ from the novel. To better understand how this book and the movie differ, compare this book review with Plugged In’s movie review for Wonderstruck.

You can request a review of a title you can’t find at [email protected].

Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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