Study Guide

Where'd You Go, Bernadette Family

By Maria Semple

Family

It was one of the rare mornings when Dad was around. (1.176)

What a way to kick things off. The "rarity" of this seemingly normal event says it all.

"Do you have any idea how strong I'm being?" she erupted. "How much my heart is breaking that you'll be going off to boarding school?" (1.188)

There's no doubt that Bernadette adores Bee, but do you think she's going overboard here? Is she stifling her daughter? Or is she just being protective? Your answers to these questions will say a lot about how you view the mother-daughter relationship that defines Where'd You Go, Bernadette.

We moved to Seattle. I was swallowed whole by Microsoft. Bernadette became pregnant and had the first of a series of miscarriages. (1.680)

Although it happens well before the events of the novel, much of the family's current drama can be traced back to their transition from L.A. to Seattle. Fresh off her first failure as an architect, Bernadette is alone, confused, and growing more isolated by the day.

The house, which was a blank canvas on which Bernadette was to work her magic, understandably languished. (1.680)

The family's half-finished, leaky home is a fitting symbol of both the family's struggles as a unit and Bernadette's struggles as an individual. It also must have a significant effect on their states of mind to spend their lives in such a grody place.

I imagined that having a sick child can knit a husband and wife together, or rip them apart. In our case, it did neither. (1.681)

Instead, they simply settle into their respective lives, becoming distant from one another, but not so distant that their marriage falls apart. It's like romantic purgatory. It's also a recipe for an unhappy life.

I was baby Jesus. Mom and Dad were Mary and Joseph. [...] I was surrounded by the surgeons and residents and nurses who helped me stay alive [...] and if it weren't for them I would be dead now. (4.224)

Although it's hard for Bee to remember what it felt like to undergo treatment, she feels an immense gratitude to her parents for loving her so fiercely, and the hospital staff for saving her life. Here, she expresses that gratitude through religious imagery from the Christmas story. It doesn't hurt that she gets to be Jesus in the metaphor, either.

That a family with significant income would live in such deteriorating conditions suggests a lack of self-respect, ambivalence about their financial/social superiority, and poor reality testing (4.247)

Yes, yes, and yes. Dr. Kurtz nails the Branch family on all counts. Although it's easy to blame Bernadette alone for the family's obvious dysfunction, Elgin must take his share of blame too, as things would've never gotten so bad if he had just taken the time to be there for his wife, rather than drowning his own sorrows in his work at Microsoft.

That's when I made the executive decision: I hate him. (6.48)

Although Bee loves Elgin, she immediately turns against her dad after Bernadette's appearance. This obviously could be due to the sordid circumstances surrounding the incident, but we think that Bee's bond with Bernadette is so strong that she'd take her side no matter the situation.

I can pinpoint that as the single happiest moment of my life, because I realized then that Mom would always have my back. It made me feel giant. (6.99)

Bee refuses to accept that Bernadette is gone for good. Why do you think that is? From our perspective, this quote sums it up. Bernadette's love and support for Bee has never wavered, and Bee can't even imagine a world where she doesn't have them.

"You're great, Bee. You've always been great. You're our biggest accomplishment." (6.286)

Elgin and Bernadette have their differences, but they're united in their astonishment that they produced someone as cool as Bee. They may be dysfunctional, and they might really need to see a marriage counselor, but their family is built on the strongest foundation of them all: love.

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