Study Guide

Bernadette Branch in Where'd You Go, Bernadette

By Maria Semple

Bernadette Branch

Bernadette is best known for her work as an architect, but she's seriously underrated as an escape artist. She makes Houdini look like a rookie. Makes Carmen Sandiego seem like a chump. And Waldo? There's a reason Where's Bernadette? never caught on. Nobody could solve a single puzzle.

The True B**** Goddess of Architecture

Back in the day, there was no one hotter in the architecture game than Bernadette. She was a prominent woman in a male-dominated field. She championed a unique style, one that embraced green design before green design was cool. She was bold and uncompromising, even a little punk rock. Oh yeah, and did we mention that she won a MacArthur freaking Genius Grant? We feel unaccomplished just writing about her.

But then it all goes poof. During a feud between Bernadette and her neighbor during the construction of her second project, the Twenty Mile House, that nefarious neighbor secretly buys the home. Before Bernie knows what's happening, "the Twenty Mile House," which had taken three years to complete, had been demolished in a day"(2.112).

This is a crushing blow to Bernadette for numerous reasons, but she takes it in stride at first. She plans to take time to lick her wounds, and then, once she "determined that everyone felt sufficiently sorry [...] show those bastards who the true b**** goddess of architecture really is" (2.133). What could possibly go wrong?

Seattle Blues

In a word: everything. For one, she moves to Seattle with her husband Elgin, whose animation firm is bought by Microsoft. She immediately buys a former home for wayward girls with plans to completely renovate it, a move totally in line with Bernadette's quirky architectural style. On top of that, she and Elgin have decided to have a baby.

Complications arise on both fronts. Bernadette has a series of miscarriages, which in her mind reflect an inability to create that had begun after the Twenty Mile House was bulldozed. She tells Elgin: "'I can't make anything without destroying it'" (2.192). Unsurprisingly, this makes it difficult for Bernadette to renovate her new home, leading it to fall into a state of leaky disrepair, a fitting symbol for her marriage, which has been slowly collapsing since the move to Seattle.

Bee My Baby

So...Bernadette is understandably overjoyed when she gives birth to Bee. She's also understandably devastated when she finds out that Bee was born with a heart defect. In fact, she prays to God that she will renounce all her creative impulses to save Bee's life. And save her life He does. Thanks, big fella. Bee doesn't just survive but thrive, growing into a healthy, happy, and super-smart young woman. A real chip off the old block.

Bee is the only thing in the world Bernadette loves. Her marriage is worse than ever. She hates the judgmental Galer Street Gnats at Bee's school. And she despises the city in general, channeling her life's frustration into long, hateful rants against Seattle. Just wait until you hear her monologues about the city's notorious five-way intersections. She oughta start a podcast.

Friends and Foes

No wonder Bernadette spends all her time talking to a virtual assistant who lives in India...girl is lonely. Of course, the truth is even stranger, as Manjula the virtual assistant is in fact Boris the Russian mafioso. We learn this information courtesy of the FBI, who reveal to Elgin that Bernadette has given this stranger all the family's personal information. This is one of the big reasons Elgin thinks that Bernadette is literally insane and in need of being committed.

To her shock, Bernadette is rescued from this fate by her most hated foe: Audrey Griffin, leader of the Galer Street Gnats. This is an amazing twist, not only because Bernadette is being saved at the last second, but because it proves all her assumptions about Seattle wrong. By going from Bernadette's "devil" to her "angel," Audrey breaks down Bernadette's defenses and forces her to reexamine her prejudices, something our girl hasn't done in a long time (7.7).

Therapy, Penguin Style

If this rescue is Bernadette's first step towards recovery, then traveling to Antarctica is a giant leap. There, she's able to be alone with her thoughts for the first time in well over a decade, and suddenly there's "no racing heart, no flying thoughts" (7.24). What's more, she somehow finagles a job designing a scientific facility in Antarctica, a perfect choice for someone as well-versed in green design as Bernie. In one sudden moment, all the broken pieces of Bernadette's life have magically reassembled themselves.

Is everything suddenly perfect? No way. We haven't even gotten into her husband's little lovechild situation. Yeah...couples counseling is most definitely on the menu for these two. Yet, despite all the uncertainty, Bernadette feels like a whole person for the first time in a long time. And who knows? Maybe she'll score herself a second MacArthur Genius Grant.

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