Study Guide

Where'd You Go, Bernadette Memory and the Past

By Maria Semple

Memory and the Past

I realized I was now looking at Bernadette Past and Present. There was a terrifying chasm between the woman I fell in love with and the ungovernable one sitting across from me. (1.741)

Putting aside the implication of Elgin calling his wife "ungovernable" (we see you, pal), this passage shows his confusion over the person Bernadette is today. As we'll learn, Bernadette has an illustrious past. So why is she now spending her days sitting as a shut-in in Seattle?

Bernadette Fox's Twenty Mile House no longer stands. There are few photos of it, and Ms. Fox is purported to have destroyed all plans. (2.5)

It's no wonder Bernadette acts like her past life as a renowned architect doesn't exist; there aren't any records of it. We bet that sometimes she sincerely feels like it didn't happen, as if it was all some weird, years-long fever dream.

It turns out, the whole time in L.A., Elgie was just a guy in socks searching for a carpeted, fluorescent-lit hallway in which to roam at all hours of the night. (2.167)

In the same way that Elgin wonders what happened to the old Bernadette, she thinks about how much her husband has changed since they moved to Seattle. In fact, it goes even deeper than that: she wonders if his past self was a straight-up lie. Did he always have an inner Seattleite just waiting for the chance to reveal himself?

What Elgin didn't know was that I was using his words to help me heal from an even deeper grief than the miscarriages, a grief I couldn't admit to: grief over the Twenty Mile House. (2.196)

A miscarriage can be a difficult emotional experience on its own, but it's amplified for Bernadette because it brings up unresolved feelings from her past. In her mind, her difficulties with pregnancy become tied with her failures as an architect, making her feel like she can't create anymore, and leading to a decline in her mental health.

Like a black hole, it sucks in any benign thoughts that might be scrolling across my brain attaches visceral panic to them. (2.216)

Bernadette's anxiety is amped up at night, when any thought will inevitably become tied to her feelings of shame about her past. Comparing anxiety to a "black hole" is a great way of depicting how consuming and powerful the experience can be.

Twenty years later you're still nursing the injustice of a fight you had with some English asshole, a fight you brought upon yourself? (4.335)

No wonder Bernadette doesn't discuss her feelings with Elgin. Although the anger is still fresh for Bernadette, Elgin sees the whole situation as ancient history. He doesn't understand how it could still be affecting her.

You've gone insane, Bernadette. It's like alien came down and replaced you with a replica, but the replica is a drag queen demented version of you. (4.339)

It's crazy how unsympathetic Elgin can be towards his wife. Instead of empathizing with the woman he loves as she goes through a serious mental health episode, he can only think about how it affects him. This prevents him from supporting her in the ways she needs.

Personally, I found the concept of closure totally offensive, because it would mean I was trying to forget about Mom. (6.62)

It bothers Bee that everyone tries to move on so quickly after Bernadette's disappearance. It's like they're trying to erase her memory. The truth is obviously a lot more complicated, but not from our young heroine's perspective.

"I miss her, too, Bee." His chest jerked violently. He was bad at crying. "I know you think you have a monopoly on missing her." (6.280)

Elgin might be a self-centered jerk at times, but he's not such a bad guy. After all, it's not like he doesn't miss Bernadette, it's just that he has trouble showing it, especially because he lacks Bee's faith that she'll magically return.

Really, who wants to admit [...] she was once considered the most promising architect in the country, but now devotes her celebrated genius to maligning the driver in front of her for having Idaho plates? (7.31)

After the family reunites, Bernadette finally reveals her illustrious past to Bee, which is an important step for her. She's always hidden her life as an architect from her daughter, and by opening up that world to her, she's integrating these two distinct parts of herself. Her career might not have gone how she had planned, but that's no reason to pretend like it didn't happen.

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