Study Guide

Elgin Branch in Where'd You Go, Bernadette

By Maria Semple

Elgin Branch

If Bernadette is genetically predisposed to hate Seattle, then her husband Elgin has love for the city baked into his DNA.

His favorite band? Nirvana. His favorite weather? Rain. His blood type? Starbucks.

Learn to Code, Bro

It doesn't hurt that he scores a bomb job at Microsoft. A former animator, he becomes a major leader in the company, earning countless awards and the undying respect of his peers. In other words, he becomes a total tech bro. This irks Bernadette, who wonders if he always "had a bike-riding, Subaru-driving, Keen-wearing alter ego just waiting to bust out" (2.134).

In fact, Elgin is the lead designer on one of the most innovative projects Microsoft has ever seen, Samantha 2. Samantha 2 is a Band-Aid-sized computer that sticks to your head and hooks directly into your thoughts, allowing you to control the world around you simply by thinking. Sounds like science fiction. Elgin announced the project on a live TED Talk, catapulting not just Samantha 2, but Elgin himself, to minor internet fame. He's on top of the world.

For Better and For Worse

Unfortunately, his wife is smack-dab at the bottom. While Elgin flourishes, Bernadette falls apart, going from MacArthur Genius Grant-winning architect to shut-in. What's more, Bernadette has little respect for Elgin's work at Microsoft, which she refers to as "Big Brother," alluding to the frightening privacy implication of Samantha 2 (1.140). On top of that, Elgin spends almost every waking hour at work, which certainly isn't going to help a struggling marriage.

Even with all this, it's pretty shocking that Elgin tries to get Bernadette committed to a mental institution. Sure, Bernadette's mental health struggles are numerous and self-evident, but we'd think he'd start with something simple like therapy instead of jumping straight to the nuclear option. So why does he? Is he grasping at any excuse to get her out of the picture? Or is he sincerely misunderstanding the severity of her issues?

For Worse, Mostly

Having an affair (with a lovechild, to boot) doesn't help his case. That being said, it's not like he's the driving force behind his relationship with Soo-Lin. We all know who's behind the wheel of that jalopy. More accurately, their extramarital excursion occurs during a perfect storm for Elgin, with Bernadette's collapse, trouble with Samantha 2, and the long-awaited trip to Antarctica all converging at the same time, leaving him more prone to making terrible decisions.

This makes his response to Bernadette's disappearance all the more suspicious to Bee. He doesn't talk about Bernadette. He doesn't cry over her. He doesn't seem to care at all. In fact, Bee can't help but feel like her dad wanted Bernadette gone so he could start a new life with Soo-Lin, a life where Microsoft isn't a dirty word and there's a minimal chance of FBI involvement.

Starting from Scratch

But Bee's perspective is an over-simplification. Elgin loves Bernadette. She's his "best friend"...but they've built up a lot of baggage over the years (6.280). Their relationship is still salvageable, but it'll take work from both of them. A lot of work. Still, he knows that they can do it. After all, there's one very important thing that both share: their "biggest accomplishment," Bee (6.286).

That's not the only hurdle Elgin will be facing, either. During the trip to Antarctica, he reveals to Bee that Samantha 2 has been canned, and in a cruel irony his department is "folding into games" (6.337). Elgin's life's work, a technology he saw as a way to help disabled people, will now be used for Fortnite emotes. Ouch. If nothing else, this will force him to make a clean break from the past, which just may give his marriage a fighting chance.

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