NOVEL APPROACH: Finding ‘Bernadette’

Print This Page

First Posted: 4/29/2013

Childhood is often a mixture of happy and sad memories. In Maria Semple’s latest work, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” we find young protagonist, Bee Branch, experiencing the latter following her mother’s untimely vanishing act. Bee resolves to find the answer as to why her mother left, while setting out to find her in this coming-of-age tale.

As a screenwriter and novelist, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” marks Semple’s second novel since “This One Is Mine” (2008). In the work, readers meet the brilliant Bernadette Fox, a woman whose fascinating life became only a distant memory.

Once an up-and-coming architect in Seattle, Bernadette could have lived a life of experience. Unfortunately, something changed that all for her and, since that time, Bernadette has been unable to even leave her home.

Readers hone in on Bernadette as we see her spending time with her husband, Elgin Branch, and daughter, Bee, oblivious to the world that exists outside her front door. To add to the cast is Bernadette’s outsourced virtual assistant, Manjula, who aids her in nearly every task.

On the outside, Bernadette seems both happy and fulfilled. Inside, however, she is over-vigilant, attempting to ward off her increasing anxiety of the world. When Bee proves exemplary in her studies, Bernadette is forced to make the ultimate decision.

“Apparently, my husband and I told [Bee] she could have anything she wanted if she graduated middle school with straight A’s. The straight A’s have arrived — or should I say straight S’s, because Galer Street is one of those liberal, grades-erode-self-esteem-type schools […] — and so what does Bee want? To take a family trip to Antarctica!”

After more coaxing from Bee, Bernadette agrees to the trip. However, there is a hesitance to her words — something Bee decides to ignore until it is too late. By now, readers are well aware that Bernadette is far from well. More often than not her neurosis sets in, leading her to retreat far from most human interaction. But this time, Bernadette makes an informed decision to leave Elgin and Bee in order to resolve those issues.

While Bernadette is always in the background of the work, Bee becomes the ultimate protagonist as readers follow along in the search for her mother. Smart and beguiling, Bee leads us through a winding path of revelations.

Both funny and sweet, the intensity of the novel’s themes are moving and fully developed throughout. The novel, while allowing readers a pragmatic glimpse into mental disease, showcases resolution through the bold efforts of family. In the end, it becomes as much a fight for Bee to find her mother as it is for Bernadette to find her way back home.

‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ by Maria Semple Rating: W W W W W