Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

Book of the Month Discussion: Where’d You Go, Bernadette August 2, 2013

Thanks to everyone who participated in our virtual book club (which I introduced here). July’s selection was Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.


Discussion #1: Quirky Style

I enjoyed the unique format of the storytelling in this book. It’s part epistolary (with the letters and the documents Bee discovers telling part of the story) and part narrative, and I think the combination works well. I appreciate that the firsthand documents help us piece together clues alongside Bee, while the narrative parts gives us a window into Bee’s thoughts and personality.


What did you think of the style? Did it work for you?


Discussion #2: 3-D Characters

The characters in this novel felt quirky but real to me. Case in point: Bernadette is clearly disturbed and unstable, but she’s still lovable, and we gradually get a peek into more layers of her character as the story progresses. Audrey seems to be annoying and one-dimensional at first, but she turns out to be the one who saves Bernadette, and we see her soften from her judgmental, shallow ways. And then there’s Bee—the smart, precocious heroine who manages to unravel the mystery and carry the load of an adult role in her search for her mom.


One of the interesting about these characters was how they seemed to coexist side by side but in their own separate worlds—it’s like they are somehow lonely together. At one point Bee says:

I don’t know if it’s possible to feel everything all at once, so much that you think you’re going to burst. . . . I felt so full of love for everything. But at the same, I felt so hung out to dry there, like nobody could ever understand. I felt so alone in this world, and so loved at the same time. (p. 199)


What did you think of the characters? Did you have a favorite? Was there a character you couldn’t stand?


Discussion #3: Seattle as a Character

Seattle is practically a character in the novel—and a dynamic one at that, as we see the city through Bernadette’s eyes. At first she appreciates how refreshingly different it is from California, but eventually she starts to resent everything about the city—the weather, the crunchy granola types, the Microsoft culture—and Bernadette practically blames the city for driving her away. But in the stark, unforgiving cold desert climate of Antarctica—so opposite from Seattle—Bernadette starts to appreciate what she left behind in the Emerald City.


Do you think this story would work in another setting? Did the portrayal of Seattle ring true to you?


Discussion #4: The Mind of an Artist

It was heartbreaking to finally unravel what had happened to Bernadette’s architectural masterpiece. Here’s what Bernadette says about it in her letter to Bee:

By now you’ve learned that I’m a certified genius. . . . Really, who wants to admit to her daughter that she was once considered the most promising architect in the country, but now devotes her celebrated genius to maligning the driver in front of her for having Idaho plates? (p. 316)


How do you think you would have responded if someone had destroyed your life’s work like that?


Do you know any artists? What happens to them if they don’t create?



I would give this book 4 stars for the ever-precocious Bee and the creative storytelling.

4 stars


What rating would you give this book?


{Remember: There will be a free book giveaway for one lucky commenter!}



12 Responses to “Book of the Month Discussion: Where’d You Go, Bernadette”

  1. Kelli Says:

    I read this last summer, so I’m a little fuzzy on details… but I do remember my opinions 🙂
    I would give this book a 2.5/4.
    The style of the book – with the emails and letters was one that was used so much in chick-lit books in the past few years, I’ve gotten tired of it. And, I don’t feel anyone in the actual situation would have sat down and typed out a two page letter – they would have texted it in 7 words. 🙂
    The pacing of the book itself was great until about 2/3 in, when it slowed down and the ending was hugely disappointing.
    The atmosphere of Seattle was excellent – when I had read the book, I had never been to seattle. But then I ended up going a couple months after that and I kept my eyes open for “signs” and I asked the people who live there a ton of questions. It ended up being a fun way to be introduced to the city -having this preconceived notion from a book, and then seeing it firsthand and finding it was rather true. The author’s snarky analysis of the Gnats, the city, the school… all very well done.

    I got so frustrated with Bernadette for letting others destroy her art/artistic nature. The fact that she didn’t fight back was terribly sad. (But, as to the author, the way we found out about the condition of her own house, etc was such a good part of the story.) It CAN destroy you to not have an outlet or to have people tear that outlet apart once you’ve struggled to let it be seen.

    My favorite line: “When you hear the sound of hoofbeats, think horses and not zebras.”

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Kelli! I thought about the letter aspect of it too…in some ways the book might have made sense if it took place a few years ago with less technology. That’s so fun that you got to go to Seattle after reading the book…I wonder if people there are proud of their depiction in the book or a little miffed by it. Great quote! Thanks so much for joining the discussion.

  2. Really enjoyed this book!

  3. 1. I loved the literary style. I enjoyed reading the letters/communications. My only criticism is that all the writing styles had a very similar voice. I wish they had been more unique to each character.

    2. I appreciated how the author made each character fully dimensional. Nobody was all good or all bad…much like in real life. However, a lot of the characters seemed to have extreme personality traits, which isn’t as common in real life. I think most people are slightly left or right of normal, not completely out there like the folks in this book. (Although there are exceptions in real life!) I also didn’t buy the transformation in Audrey. Maybe it was because we weren’t witness to all that happened, but it just seemed to drastic. Apart from an encounter with the Divine, I don’t see most people changing in such “macro” ways.

    3. The author truly did a great job of personifying Seattle. I’ve only been there once, but I appreciated her insightful descriptions.

    4. I think whenever someone’s passion is squashed, it leads to frustration and depression. We are made in the image of God–a creator–and that’s why in order to be fully human, we must create…whether it be fine art, crafts, software programs, relationships, an orderly workspace, etc.

    • Thanks for the great thoughts, Lu! Hmm…good point about the characters being so extreme and changing so drastically. I wonder if part of the drastic feel is because we aren’t inside their heads…? Then again, there’s also kind of a surreal feel to the book (which the cover art plays into) that gives you the idea these people are almost caricatures. I love your thoughts about how we’re all wired to create in some way! So true.

  4. Linda sladkey Says:

    This book was a reminder to me that everybody has a story. Whether they are living behind a veneer of perfection or oddities there is always a deeper level that can help us understand each other.
    The twists as the story unravelled kept my interest. Not too impressed by the father. I would look for other titles by the same author.

    • Great thoughts, Linda. You’re so right about everyone having a story. It reminded me of that quote: “Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” As a side note, I think Maria Semple looks a little bit like you. 🙂

  5. […] Congratulations to Kelli for winning the free book giveaway for July! You can read more about our discussion of quirky characters and Seattle and Antarctica here. […]

  6. Jolyn Says:

    Better late than never, right? Finished the book in time, just not the questions!

    1. I loved the style. It seemed unique to me and I like the way the story unfolded slowly through a number of different characters and formats. It kept me reading – and it felt like something new.

    2. I liked the characters – relatable in the sense that they were all flawed. If there were any I disliked, it was Elgin and his admin. I didn’t like the idea of the affair at all, regardless of whether it meant anything to him.

    3. I haven’t been to Seattle, but her descriptions were well done. There are probably a few other places it could have been, but Antarctica was irreplaceable. I could completely understand her reluctance to take such a big trip.

    4. The destruction of the Twenty Mile House was devastating – and it’s possible she could have continued her work on the new house, though Bee’s complicated birth/childhood seemed to shift her track. And I’ve seen that happen to many moms, including myself. When you world starts to revolve around someone other than yourself, you do lose the focus on who you used to be and what you were good at creating. There are days when I don’t feel like I’m who I used to be (or that I have many working brain cells)! Making time for the things you love to do is always a challenge.

    I’d agree that 4 stars is a fair rating. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the book!

    Other random comments: At the beginning, it was fun reading about Bernadette’s virtual assistant (mainly because I have a VA of my own!). Of course her VA went sour through the book, but it made an interesting component of the story.

    • Ooh, great thoughts, Jolyn! Glad you liked the book. Great insights about the Twenty Mile House…we all have those dreams in our lives that get devastated for one reason or another and it’s hard to go back. I’m so intrigued by your VA! If you ever plan a trip to Antarctica, you’re covered. 🙂

  7. nate Says:

    I, too, am better late to the discussion than never…heck, I even bumped this book up in my monthly queue and finished it early to ensure I’d be all set for the discussion when it came around…

    First things first, I applaud the author for her innovative narrative technique. I’ve long been a demagogue for experimenting with new storytelling methods taking advantage of modern media, information exchange, and crossovers therein. This is absolutely the direction I would like to see more writers adventuring into. Maybe not this exact style, but in the same spirit. Bravo! The book was worth reading (and supporting the author and encouraging the publishers that this sort of thing should be pursued) for that reason alone.

    That being said, I felt like in this specific instance, we lost a lot of depth in the characters. Bernadette was the only character I felt had any real depth to her. Elgin improved in the second half of the book, but he was so absent from the first half he had a lot of catching up to do. All of the other side characters felt like caricatures and punch lines, rather than participants. The worst offense, i thought, was Bee. Even though she is the narrator, and supposedly the point of view of the story, I felt like I hardly knew a thing about her. It seemed to me like everything I knew about her was because one of the other characters said I was supposed to know that about her, and not because it was shown to be true about her in the story. And when she finally does come out and start showing a little of herself, it’s after the Great Schism (see below), and she’s acting completely out-of-character from the first half of the book!

    Which brings me to the Great Schism, that divide between the first half of the book and the second, where all of the characters do an about-face and begin acting completely differently than the did in the first half! Near the end, they try to tie up the motivation for everyone’s change, but at that point it felt more like they were trying to make excuses rather than explanations. It drove me crazy, because I never felt like any of them had come to a legitimate catharsis to inspire the changes!

    I never felt like Seattle was a character, so much as the House, the School, and Microsoft were characters. Living in the heart of Silicon Valley, I thought it could have been transplanted to Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, or San Jose by only changing the name of the city and the tech company (to Facebook or Apple or Sun or whatever). You wouldn’t have to change another single thing in the narrative (except the Canadian jokes, which were hilarious!)

    Perhaps my biggest qualm with the book was that the whodunit mystery didn’t appear until 2/3rds of the way through the book! If you consider the book to be a mystery, which was my impression when I read the title and back cover, it’s an epic failure. Part of the joy in a mystery is digging backwards to discover all of motives and such, unraveling the whole package and backstory before the final “how it was done.” By the time we get to the disappearance, all that stuff has already been force-fed to us, and now all that’s left is to wait for the author to tell us what happened. Had I gone into the story with a different expectation, for example that it was a dramedy rather than a mystery, I think i would have enjoyed it much more. I certainly would have spent less time waiting for her to disappear and the story to start.

    So, to boil it all down, I would give it probably 2 1/2 stars. The style was adventurous, and the first half was charming, witty, and funny, but by the second half the novelty (hah! punny I am!) had worn off and the dramatic character change seemed fueled by expository needs rather than legitimate character growth.

    But, it should also be remembered, I’m a notoriously harsh critic, so 2 1/2 may not be as bad as it seems.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Nate! It’s nice to get insights about a mystery from a mystery writer himself. I could totally see you doing something similar with a creative narrative technique. You’re right about the “Great Schism” (nice phrase for it!)–the book turned out to be something different than I expected at the beginning. And I loved hearing your insights as someone who lives in CA. So true–Microsoft as a character!

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