Maria Semple brings back the epistolary novel in this witty-poignant “mystery” told through e-mails, letters, blog posts, doctors’ reports, even F.B.I. documents, as a 15-year-old girl tries to find what happened to her mother—the Bernadette of the title, a renowned architect—after she vanishes two days before Christmas. Catherine Oddenino, the director of business development for RealSimple.com, led the discussion of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
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Where’d You Go, Bernadette: Parts 1 and 2
Happy New Year, Bookies! I hope 2013 is off to a great start for all of you and that you are enjoying Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
I’m having a difficult time putting it down. The structure of the book—using letters, e-mails, and memos—adds an interesting twist as I try to sort out the characters. Do you find the letters and structure of the book interesting or confusing?
Bee is such a sweet and precocious young heroine. To discover at the start that her mother has disappeared makes her immediately empathetic, especially so close to Christmas. After all of her health problems and somewhat “crazy” family life, to see how smart and organized she is, is truly a feat. Though perhaps that’s how she gains control over what she does have the power to affect.
The mother and title character, Bernadette, is completely fascinating. Do you know anyone who uses a virtual assistant? The research Manjula completes for Bernadette is somewhat helpful, but more than anything Manjula seems to help Bernadette limit her interactions with the people of Seattle and the outside world in general. I was so glad to get more insight into Bernadette’s background in Part 2. Learning about her mad genius as an architect and the destruction of her “masterpiece” helped me find her more likable. I’m intrigued to see what happens with her next. Does Bernadette seem like a realistic character to you? Do you find her irritating, charming, or both?
We haven’t learned as much about the father, Elgin. He’s a prep school grad and a software genius at Microsoft. (MS—so many acronyms there!) His love for his wife is clear as he rushes to help her at the pharmacy and rearranges his travel plans for her.
Audrey, the main “Galer Gnat,” is a hoot. I loved it when Bee yelled right back at her after she charged at Bernadette during the storm. It seems like her insistence to have the blackberry vines removed probably played a big part in causing the mudslide, so it feels to me like she was bringing her troubles on herself. I’ll be interested to see if she becomes more likable as the book progresses or if she’ll remain a somewhat crazed caricature.
For next Friday, January 11, we’re reading Parts 3 through 5. Until then, please post your thoughts/comments/questions below. Are you enjoying the book? Please let us know. See you next week.
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Where’d You Go, Bernadette: Parts 3, 4, and 5
Such a whirlwind of activity over the last week of reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette! Every section added more drama and excitement than the last.
Soo-Lin joins the fray as a prominent player, just as Elgin becomes a much more developed character. Have you ever watched a TEDtalks video? The Samantha 2 robot sounded so cool—I was wishing it was real! Were you expecting the relationship between Soo-Lin and Elgin? Do you think it will survive till the end of the book?
Manjula is actually a front for the Russian Mafia?!?! Wow, I was not expecting that twist. Between that revelation and Soo-Lin’s increasing presence, Bernadette’s “craziness” now feels much more understandable and far less “crazy.” What do you think happened to her in Antarctica?
Audrey is becoming one of my favorite characters. The incident at the hotel with the manager and the police officer was kind of amazing. But it was great to see her develop from a completely irrational “Galer Gnat” into someone who accepts her son’s issues and helps Bernadette escape the intervention. She even fulfilled Bernadette’s request to send the FBI dossier to Bee and let her know what happened to her mom. Has Audrey grown on you?
The description of Bee’s book sounds awfully similar to the book we’re reading. What do you think, are we actually reading Bee’s book outlining the events?
One other question for those who know Seattle and have been to the Space Needle restaurant: Do people actually put birthday cards with a pen in the windowsill for strangers to write on as the restaurant rotates? If that’s true, I need to plan a trip to visit the Space Needle stat—Kennedy’s birthday card scene was hilarious.
For next Friday, January 18, we’re finishing off the book with Parts 6 and 7. Did you enjoy these sections as much as I did? Please post your thoughts/comments/questions below. See you next week.
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Where’d You Go, Bernadette: Parts 6 and 7
What a relief to finally get an answer to the title question. The author definitely got me on that one. I would have never imagined such an interesting resolution. But let’s back up a little bit first.
So it turns out Elgin wasn’t as bad as he was looking the last time we met. He still cares about and loves Bernadette and clearly his relationship with Soo-Lin was a short-lived lapse in judgment. I was proud of him for taking Bee down to Antarctica after she came back from boarding school. Also, Bee’s experience at school with all of her Microsoft products versus the sea of Apple products was hilarious. Listening to music on a Zune? I haven’t seen one of those in YEARS. Were you surprised when Bee was kicked out of school?
I felt so much more connected to Bee and Bernadette as we learned about their relationship. Leaving Bee DVDs instead of money when she lost a tooth and leaving Bee notes in her lunch box brought so much more dimension to their relationship. Bee at one point describes Bernadette defending her and says “I can pinpoint that as the single happiest moment of my life, because I realized then that Mom would always have my back. It made me feel giant.” So it made it all the more wonderful to see how Bernadette almost “came back to life” once she started working on the project in Antarctica. I wish we could see pictures of what she was working with. Did you think that Bernadette was still alive?
Even with all of the seasickness, Antarctica sounded pretty darn amazing—have any of you been lucky enough to visit?
So now that we’ve come to the end, I have one last piece of exciting news to share with you: Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, has been gracious enough to agree to answer our questions. Leave any questions you have for her down in the comments by EOD Friday, January 25. And don’t forget to vote for your February book! Thanks for reading along.
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The Author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette Answers Your Questions
It always makes me happy when I hear back from an author we’ve sent questions to, so you know an e-mail from Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, was a great kick-off to my weekend. See what she has to say about Elgin, Soo-Lin, and that amazing revolving restaurant.
From reader karingam: I loved this book! My question to Maria is: Why did you not develop Soo-Lin and Elgin’s relationship more? We got to know Bernadette and Bee so well! I loved that but Elgin was such a flat character and then I was surprised at the end that you made him such a sweet, caring guy. Why?
I’m so glad you liked the book and thanks for the question. OK, so my intention was to make Elgin a kind of stealth character, in that he’s a bit of a mystery in the early pages of the book. (Most of what we do learn about him is filtered through his breathlessly-in-love admin, Soo-Lin, and the crank Audrey.) But then he comes to life in later pages of the book. You experienced this as Elgin being flat, so perhaps my grand experiment failed! But that’s how I like to write. I can’t have all my characters fully formed out of the gate. Some start out stronger (Bernadette and Bee) and the others reveal themselves as the story goes along (Elgie & Audrey). To me, that makes for a fun reading experience. And as for why I didn’t develop Elgin & Soo-Lin’s relationship more—the form of the novel didn’t allow it. Because I wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette as a novel of letters, the reader’s information only comes from one character writing to another character. Therefore, we really only hear about Elgie & Soo-Lin’s relationship from Soo-Lin’s girl-talk letters to Audrey. As for Elgie’s side of the affair, well, I didn’t believe he would write about it in a letter. As much as I love the epistolary form, there were some frustrating constraints. You put your finger on a good example.
From discussion leader Catherine Oddenino: Have you taken a cruise to Antarctica? If so, was it before or after you had the idea for book? And about that scene at the Space Needle restaurant: Do people actually put birthday cards with a pen in the windowsill for strangers to write on as the restaurant rotates?
Catherine, hi. Yes, when I began writing Where'd You Go, Bernadette, my family had a cruise to Antarctica already planned. Knowing I was heading to such an exotic place made the greedy writer in me want to write about it. So I pointed the story in that direction. I was about halfway through the book when we went down there. Only then did I figure out exactly how Antarctica would figure into the plot—i.e., Bernadette sneaking off at Palmer Station. And yes, the Space Needle has a fabulous revolving restaurant. It’s 50 years old, dating back to the 1962 World’s Fair. I never go without a paper and pens. My daughter loves writing down questions and seeing what answers comes back around.
From deputy editor Maura Fritz: As a resident of Seattle, do you have the same sort of love/hate relationship with the city that Bernadette does? And also, assuming that the book we read was actually Bee’s book, what was in it that Sarah could use to rat out Bee and get her expelled from Choate?
To answer the first question: When I moved to Seattle, I didn’t like it at all, much like Bernadette. I’ve grown to appreciate, love, and feel a deep connection to the city. That’s why I ended it with Bernadette begrudgingly giving Seattle its due. As for your second (good) question: My logic is that Sarah discovered the confidential FBI documents and became scared, so she turned them over to the headmaster. When the headmaster read Bee’s book, he realized that she was admitted to Choate based on a lie and that it was in her best emotional interest to be home with her family. I’ll admit, the logic is a little shaky, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.
From reader pgnadler: The format moves the story along very well. I had never heard of a virtual assistant before, but Bernadette seems to get along with her better than anyone else. Emails are impersonal and she seems to prefer that to close contact. I “see” this story running through my head like a screenplay. I think Judy Davis (from the Ref) should play Bernadette. Not sure how the author does that but she does have a background in TV script writing? [Bookies: I extrapolated from this the question: Do you think that your background in script writing informed the story or its format in any way?—M.]
Indeed! I was a television writer for many years before I began writing fiction. I wrote for shows like Arrested Development,Mad About You, and Ellen. What I think you’re responding to, when you’re saying you’re “seeing” the story, is how I’ve written the book in big scenes. This is how my mind works after so many years as a screenwriter. Judy Davis, love her!