Study Guide

Where'd You Go, Bernadette Analysis

By Maria Semple

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Although Bernadette doesn't perform her disappearing act until the back half of the novel, it's obvious what's going to happen as soon as you read the title Where'd You Go, Bernadette?. We see the question as being spoken from Bee's perspective, as she's the "author" of the book.

    The title is also as an allusion to Bernadette's fall from grace. In this light, the title isn't about where Bernadette is in the Carmen Sandiego sense, but rather in terms of her relationship with her she moved from "Bernadette Past" to "Bernadette Present" (1.741). We spend just as much time uncovering this transition as we do scouring the planet for our Houdini wannabe.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Like a young Sherlock Holmes, Bee has solved the mystery of the disappearing mom. After she and Elgin realize that Bernadette slipped off the cruise ship in the middle of the night and made her way to Palmer Station, Bee retraces her mother's footsteps and finds her in five minutes flat. Who knew it was so easy to find someone at the South Pole?

    Finally, the family is reunited. Sure, there's the whole "Elgin's having a baby with his mistress" deal, but given everything that's happened, a little soap opera drama sounds like a walk in the park. Elgin even gives Bernadette another icon of Saint Bernadette, which you can read about in the symbols section, a sign that this once-distant couple is getting closer again.

    Though this ends the novel's narrative, the book closes with the letter Bernadette wrote to Bee that never got delivered. The letter explains the whole story of her disappearance, her new job redesigning Palmer Station, and even the truth about her past as an architect.

    It's a welcome sign that Bernadette is overcoming the issues that have held her back over the years, not only becoming more content with life, but also renewing her creative passions.

    Do we smell another MacArthur Genius Grant? Oh, never mind...false alarm. It's just penguin poop. We always make that mistake.

  • Setting

    From Starbucks to the South Pole

    What's the only thing worse than a Seattle rainstorm? An Antarctic snowstorm. Unfortunately for us, Where'd You Go, Bernadette takes us through both.

    The Seattle Freeze

    For our titular heroine, Seattle is the opposite of Disney...the unhappiest place on Earth. The people are rude. The local culture is annoying. And don't get her started about the city's notorious five-way intersections. Ironically, Bernadette argues that the "best thing about Seattle is the weather," which is a notion we find tremendously disturbing. (7.100)

    Of course, we shouldn't pretend that this is the real Seattle. Bernadette is going through some serious stuff right now, and she's taken "all the energy she had once channeled so fearlessly into architecture" and aimed it "toward fulminating about Seattle" (1.684). By the end, even she has changed her tune. The turning point is when she realizes that Seattle made Bee the person she is today...and Bee is Bernadette's favorite person in the world.

    Within the city, the location where we spend the most time is Straight Gate, the Branch family home. A former home for wayward girls, it was purchased with grand plans for renovation, the first shot in Bernadette's comeback to architecture. The fact that the house remains un-renovated almost two decades later, falling into a deeper and deeper state of leaky disrepair, makes it a handy symbolic parallel to the simultaneous deterioration of the family.

    The Antarctic Breeze

    In case that emotional coldness isn't enough for you, we also enjoy some literal coldness during our brief stint in Antarctica. It ain't exactly paradise. The climate is cold and uncompromising. The environment is an endless, boring stream of grey. And the Wi-Fi is downright terrible. As Bee says, "if Antarctica could talk, it would be saying only one thing: you don't belong here" (6.213).

    Sounds terrible, right? Wrong. This overwhelming dullness turns out to be exactly what the doctor ordered for the whole family. For Bernadette, it allows her to quiet her thoughts for the first time in decades, attaining a peace that has long eluded her. For Bee, it forces her to accept the possibility that her mom might be gone for good, even if she does end up finding her, like, five minutes later. Sadly, penguins prove much more elusive than these moments of self-realization. Oh well.

  • Tough-o-Meter


    Where'd You Go, Bernadette? might have a totally unique narrative structure, but that doesn't mean it's hard to read. In some ways, this structure makes it easier, as we're dealing with cold, hard facts rather than long, rambling narratives. Sure, we have to piece together some things on our own, but the novel never makes it too difficult for us to do so.

  • Antarctica

    It's no tropical paradise, but Antarctica is the perfect place for some emotional R&R. Just take it from Bernadette Branch and her daughter Bee.


    We can't pretend it's a friendly place, though. It's freezing. It's windy. And it's downright boring. You might have visions of cute penguins dancing around her head, but that's a far cry from the reality of sitting inside your room and bingeing Marvel movies on Netflix. As Bee says, "if Antarctica could talk, it would be saying only one thing: you don't belong here" (6.213).

    Here's the thing: this uncompromising natural environment has a way of forcing introspection. For Bee, it helps her come to terms with the idea that Bernadette is gone for good, which is an important step, even if she does end up finding her, like, two minutes later.


    The effects are even more profound for Bernie dearest. Having long struggled with depression, Bernadette find the solitude of Antarctica therapeutic. Here's a great example:

    I kept my head down, strayed in my room, and slept, but, mainly, I was. No racing heart, no flying thoughts (7.24)

    Her mental health problems might not be resolved, but our heroine is well on the road to recovery. What's more, Antarctica helps her rediscover her passion for architecture, and she somehow scores a gig designing a scientific station. This is perfect for her given her stylistic embrace of green architecture and the use of minimal materials...both necessities in Antarctica.

    So there you have it. Next time you have an important life crisis to overcome, just book a one-way-ticket to the land of the penguins. Might even help you find a job.

  • Saint Bernadette's Eighteen Visions

    Most people would be satisfied with one mystical vision. Bernadette? She needs eighteen.

    Mystical Vibrations

    This is an allusion to Saint Bernadette. Canonized for having a vision of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Catholic mystic had a total of eighteen visions in her life. Elgin references this legend by giving Bernadette an icon of the saint after she sells the Twenty-Mile House, telling her: "She had visions, eighteen in all. You had your first vision with Beeber Bifocal. You had your second vision with the Twenty Mile House. Here's to sixteen more." (2.98) It's sweet, ooey-gooey stuff.

    Soon after, the Twenty-Mile House is destroyed, the family moves to Seattle, and Bernadette has a full-on mental breakdown. So what will happen to her remaining sixteen vision now? In a symbolic reflection of Bernadette's refusal to embrace her creative passions, she promises to "renounce" the rest of her "sixteen visions" if Bee will survive her early health struggles (2.206). Goodbye, creativity.

    Spiritual Lasik

    It isn't until the end of the novel that the visions reappear. Confident that they've located Bernadette in Antarctica, Elgin gives Bee the same icon along with a new list of visions to give to her mom. The first two are the same, but now there are two more added: Bee and Bernadette's disappearing act. Only fourteen more to go.

    What a pitch-perfect moment. Not only is Bernadette rediscovering her creative impulses, but she's now able to integrate them into her new life. She's an artist. She's a mother. She's a master escape artist. She's all those things and more. Well, fourteen more, at least.

  • Samantha 2

    Afraid of Facebook listening in on your smartphone mic? Worried about the NSA reading your texts? Just wait 'til you get your hands on Samantha 2. Or, rather, when it gets its hand on you.

    Sam and Her Big Bro

    Samantha 2 is a revolutionary device from Microsoft that plugs directly into your brain. Simply strap a Band-Aid-looking thing to the back of your head and you'll be directly connected to the internet, able to control your television, lights, and email just by thinking. It's this project that brings Elgin and fam to Seattle, and it's this project that launches him to minor fame after the TEDTalk announcing it goes viral.

    If you're like us, however, then the idea is a little freaky. A computer that plugs into your brain? It's very Black Mirror. We'll give it a year before they start pumping ads into our dreams. Bernadette seems to be on the same wavelength, frequently comparing Microsoft to "Big Brother" of 1984 fame, alluding to the frightening surveillance implications of such a powerful device (1.140).

    Press X to See Your Life's Work Go Up In Flames

    That being said, it's not like there's no value in Samantha 2. One of Elgin's biggest drives for the project is a partnership with Walter Reed to "help our wounded veterans live independent and productive lives" (3.216). In this light, Samantha 2 can be seen as a medical revolution, a device that could change the lives of the countless people dealing with disabilities and other conditions.

    In the end, none of this matters because Samantha 2 gets canned. Well, it's not being canceled entirely, but instead is "folding [..] into games" with the Xbox division, taking what might have been a medical revolution and turning it into a fancy way of playing Minecraft (6.33). This becomes a fitting bit of commentary on its own, poking fun at the need of corporations to turn a profit at all costs, even if it means doing something trivial with revolutionary technology.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • George Orwell, 1984 (1.140)
      • Shakespeare, Othello  (5.12, referenced throughout)

      Historical References

      • Bill Gates (1.49, referenced throughout)
      • Steve Allen (1.49)
      • Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1.108)
      • Sir Francis Drake (1.228, referenced throughout)
      • Marie Antoinette (1.347)
      • Al Gore (1.390, referenced throughout)
      • Hillary Clinton (1.465)
      • Warren Buffett (1.688)
      • Sergey Brin (3.183)
      • John F. Kennedy (5.51)
      • George Washington (6.40)
      • Buzz Aldrin (6.49)

      Pop Culture References

      • Joni Mitchell (1.171)
      • John Candy (1.171)
      • Guys and Dolls (1.184)
      • Grateful Dead (1.252)
      • Milton Avery (1.299)
      • Pearl Jam (1.315)
      • Cameron Diaz (1.390)
      • Dale Chihuly (1.442)
      • Stanley Kubrick (1.471, referenced throughout)
      • Sleeping Beauty (1.476)
      • Up (1.513)
      • Abbey Road (1.570, referenced throughout)
      • The Beatles (1.570, referenced throughout)
      • Apocalypse Now (2.72)
      • Prince (2.85)
      • Frida Kahlo (2.179)
      • Oprah (2.179)
      • Harry Houdini (2.199)
      • A Clockwork Orange  (2.228)
      • Friends (3.88)
      • Encyclopedia Brown (3.101)
      • Diana Ross (3.170)
      • Ben Affleck (3.178)
      • David Byrne (3.192)
      • Bewitched (3.200)
      • "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" (4.197)
      • "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" (4.197)
      • Eloise at the Plaza (5.5)
      • Kurt Cobain (5.22)
      • Courtney Love (5.22)
      • Morrissey (5.234)
      • Moulin Rouge (5.248)
      • A Hard Day's Night (6.74)
      • Funny Face (6.74)
      • That's Entertainment (6.74)
      • Xanadu (6.74)
      • Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (6.99)
      • Happy Feet (6.140)
      • Michael Jackson (6.211)
      • Yellow Submarine (6.223)
      • Doris Day (6.274)
      • March of the Penguins (6.518)
      • Elvis (6.544)
      • Bart Simpson (6.598)
      • LeBron James (7.11)
      • Gloria Estefan (7.11)
      • Louise Nevelson (7.22)
      • Michael Vick (7.35)
      • Charles Barkley (7.35)
      • Lorenzo's Oil (7.51)
      • Ben Stiller (7.102)

      Architectural References

      • Frank Gehry (1.171)
      • Frank Lloyd Wright (2.12)
      • Le Corbusier (2.12)
      • Miles van der Rohe (2.12)
      • Louis Khan (2.12)
      • Richard Neutra (2.12)
      • Rudolf Schindler (2.12)
      • Michael Graves (2.16)
      • Peter Eisenman (2.16)
      • Richard Meier (2.28)
      • Zaha Hadid (2.64)
      • Eileen Gray (2.64)
      • Julia Morgan (2.64)
      • Ann Tyng (2.64)
      • Marion Griffin (2.64)
      • Denise Scott Brown (2.64)
      • Robert Venturi (2.64)