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Tuesday, August 25, 2015
How We Found Bernadette
We found Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, fun to read, satirical, and a fairly in-depth character study of a creative and somewhat lost main character. Pam brought a list of thoughtful, thought-provoking questions, and we stayed mostly on topic. I’ll go over a few of the questions and responses here:
Question: What in the story was a surprise?
Janice was surprised by the Russian scam.
Linda was surprised that Audrey was redeemed. She enjoyed hating Audrey during the first part of the book and had to switch gears.
Jay was surprised by the author’s portrayal of the Canadians, and her satire of the Canadian attitude of equality. An elite person here would be equal to a bum there. Being special makes you get squashed down to everyone else’s level. Some of this makes the stereotyped Canadian too friendly and cheerful.
Jay was impressed by author’s knowledge of architects and her mention of Art Forum magazine, which is obscure and scholarly. It was clear that Semple researched this book carefully.
Question: Were you surprised by Elgie: the depth that he shared in letter and/ or his emotions?
Linda was surprised at his having an affair and that there was a child. Janice wanted the pregnancy to be false. I also wanted it to go away.
Pat was surprised at how Bee thought of Elgie on the ship, like a woman with a lot of stuff on his night table.
Patty was surprised about the Microsoft bashing. She was also surprised that the places in the book were real places.
Patty’s daughter-in-law went to Lakeside school. It was nicknamed “the Cadillac school. Patty’s son lives in a big beautiful craftsman house. The neighborhood of Craftsman homes in the story exists. And, the blackberries are a very invasive plant that is out of control. Patty saw blackberries covering an apple orchard.
Carla’s son lives in an old Craftsman house in Seattle. Although the author says the buildings in Seattle are just thrown together and block views, Carla said the public library in Seattle is amazing!
Jan K. felt that the author expressed being offended by the Craftsman houses. Jan’s son is in Oregon and there are many similar houses there. Jan suggested that since the Craftsman homes are all similar to each other, maybe author Semple was satirizing them as exemplifying a lack of creativity.
Pam said the stereotype is that every woman in Seattle has long or short grey hair, ie, the natural look without hair coloring to cover the grey.
Marla noted that the satire on Seattle reminded her of the TV show, Portlandia, which satirizes Portland, OR and is available on Netflix and is laugh-out-loud funny (Claudia’s opinion – one of the most consistently laugh-producing shows ever).
Of Seattle and Antarctica
Patty said that there is a permanent exhibit at the University of Washington in Seattle about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. Thus, this could be a connection to the author researching Antarctica and using it in the story.
I (Claudia) brought some selected passages from my daughter’s emails from a college experience on a research vessel in Antarctica. (Thanks to Artemis Harbert for allowing this.) I thought it was interesting how closely the author’s descriptions of Antarctica and the activities in the story in Antarctica matched what my daughter experienced. I guess there is a limited array of activities and ways to do things in Antarctica. I hope everyone found the emails interesting. Maybe some in the group will be inspired to cruise down there. Tourists do speak well of it!
(For more information on Drake's Passage, just Google it.)
(For more information on Drake's Passage, just Google it.)
Insights & Themes
Patty read the book twice. She picked up a theme of St. Bernadette and the 18 Miracles and felt that the book was organized accordingly.
Patty also said she tried to categorize the novel. What kind of novel? She couldn’t find a standard category but did notice a lot of exaggeration. She suggested a theme of exaggeration.
Pam noticed a theme of hills: blackberries on the hill, sliding into Audrey’s yard, and Dr. Kurtz from Madrona Hill.
Pam thought that Bernadette was destroyed when her beloved home was destroyed and that she became depressed and agoraphobic after that. This explained why she needed the Indian assistant. I thought the assistant was satire, using exaggeration to make the assistant theme funny, at least at first, before the assistant’s true identity was exposed.
Janice thought that a psychiatric diagnosis for Bernadette as having functional bipolar disorder was exemplified by her throwing herself into things she was enthusiastic about. Also, there were funny aspects to Bernadette’s aberrated behavior, such as when she put the dirty dishes in the drawer for the maid. Janice suggested that medication could stifle some of the behavior but that Bernadette realistically needs a therapist and would need one back at home regardless of any satisfaction from building in Antarctica.
Pam had another psychological insight; that Bernadette might have been different if it hadn’t been for the miscarriages, Bee’s illness, and other problems that gave her a slow start in Seattle.
Marla saw Bernadette, Elgie, and Bee’s current house as symbol for Bernadette. Moving the pots for rain, putting a cloth in was like her quieting her own demons. The house problems were never fixed, as Bernadette couldn’t be fixed. Elgie tolerated the idiosyncrasies of the house, because if he wanted to fix things, he would have had to “make them a problem.”
Dennis thought the book was just meant to be entertaining.
Marla noticed that the title of the book was significant. She said that a person disappears when they marry, move, etc. When one finds oneself after that, one is somewhat new and restructured. Bernadette was going through a lot of these kinds of changes, to become a new person.
Pam said the author’s theme was, “Do what you need to do to not lose your essence.” Bernadette was an artist and needed to be an artist. Marla added that one defines oneself by how one feels, not what one does. The two can be tied together.
Patty said she had thought about why Antarctica was used in the story, and that it was as place for Bernadette to find herself. Carla agreed, saying it was a tool, a place where Bernadette could get out of her routine, find herself, and not remain static. Janice added that the trip cuts out everything in their lives except the cold and each other. Cindy T noted that this was helpful to Bee, too, as she was also at end of her rope after all that had happened in the book.
About the Author
Pam told us some facts about the Maria Semple's work. She published a novel, This One is Mine in 2008, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette in 2012. Her television script-writing credits include Beverly Hills, 90210; Mad About You; Saturday Night Live; Arrested Development; Suddenly Susan and Ellen. She appeared in the film I Heart Huckabees. Annapurna Pictures and Color Force acquired the rights to the film adaptation of the Where’d You Go Bernadette in January 2013. Semple is not writing the screenplay but will be an Executive Producer. Richard Linklater is in talks to direct. If you learn anything about this movie, please tell the Book Club!