On Thursday, November 14th, the Fixed on Fiction book group met to discuss Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette. Below are some of the comments made during our meeting.
First, similar to last month’s title we were pleased to discover Bernadette was a resounding success among our book club members. Everyone liked, if not loved, it! While it is always fun to discuss a book in which readers have varied opinions, it’s also interesting to make note of the few titles which prove to be “sure bets” in our group. We covered a wide array of topics during our discussion, here are some of the highlights:
On Bernadette- When first asked if book group members enjoyed the novel, one reader said she was pleasantly surprised because she was expecting the book to be somewhat “fluffy” due to the cover but actually found that while the story was humorous, there was also a lot of depth due to Bernadette’s struggles with depression. We discussed how people can easily go into a paralyzing grief after a significant loss; therefore, Bernadette’s mental state after losing the Twenty Mile House was extremely believable. We also found Bernadette’s extreme dislike of Seattle to be realistic in that she was so clearly taking her personal frustrations out on the city in which she lives and its inhabitants. Quite simply, Seattle became her target as she tried to cope with her own “failures.” We, of course, discussed Bernadette’s current home and readers were asked how she could possibly live in such a crumbling mess of a house. One member suggested that the state of her home was a clear sign of Bernadette’s depression. Additionally, her Seattle home served as a metaphor for the Twenty Mile House (all of her hard work was destroyed and now she lives in this home which is falling apart around her). Lastly, we discussed how interesting it was that Semple had her characters literally go to the other end of the world in order to sort out their problems. Most readers enjoyed the theme of completely removing yourself by cutting off phone/email/etc. in order to find resolution and perspective.
On Elgie- There was some question as to how Elgie could be so unaware of Bernadette and how he could have allowed his family to live in such a dilapidated home. One reader described Elgie as a well-adjusted individual but living in his own head, unaware of his surroundings. Another called him an eccentric, “typical software guy.” While Elgie’s lack of awareness was disappointing, most members did find his obliviousness to Bernadette’s depression to be believable. We briefly discussed how spouses are often unaware of their partner’s mental state, which made Bernadette and Elgie’s relationship realistic. When Elgie decided to stage an intervention, some readers were distraught with how quickly he decided to have Bernadette committed to a mental institution. When asked how he could justify this insensitive move, one person suggested that he approached the dilemma as a problem to solve. We briefly discussed the gender stereotype in which men traditionally want to “fix” problems quickly and efficiently rather than investing time and energy into communication. Additionally, some readers were frustrated when Elgie seemed to believe Bernadette’s death so easily. Most of us had the impression that Elgie and Bernadette were truly in love in the early stages of the book so we expected Elgie to have a bit more hope regarding his wife’s fate.
On Audrey- Audrey was certainly a welcome comedic relief. Interestingly, Audrey almost served as a foil to Bernadette in that they were both extremely obsessive about different things (Bernadette obsessed over her hate of Seattle while Audrey obsessed over Bernadette). One reader suggested that Audrey was perhaps a less intelligent version of Bernadette.
On Soo-lin- Oh Soo-lin, we sure disliked you (an intentional outcome on the author’s part, surely). We mentioned that despite Soo-lin’s “Victims Against Victomhood” tirade, she was the real abuser in that she deliberately went after an emotionally distraught man. She was determined to snag Elgie and made every excuse for her behavior along the way.
On Format- Our group unanimously loved the “scrapbook” nature of the book and found that it made Bernadette’s story a fun and engaging read. One member described Bernadette as “an internet epistolary novel” while another compared the collections of letters/emails/etc. to Wife 22
On Bee- Surprisingly, we ran out of time before we could properly discuss Bee! While Bernadette is certainly an epistolary novel, we did enjoy having Bee as a narrator in between the emails, reports, notes, etc. When we briefly addressed Bernadette’s ability to parent, one member suggested that she was a wonderful mother due to the fact that Bee turned out so well.