Study Guide

Where'd You Go, Bernadette Part One: Mom Versus the Gnats

By Maria Semple

Part One: Mom Versus the Gnats

  • The first thing we get is the date: Monday, November 15. 

  • The next is a report card for eighth-grader Bee Branch. Gotta say, this is the first time we've seen a novel open with a report card. Not exactly riveting. 

  • Apparently, Bee's school doesn't do the whole grading thing. Must be pretty hippie dippie. She does earn a "Surpasses Excellence" in all her subjects, whatever that means. 

  • Her teacher has left glowing compliments in the comment section below the grades. She talks about how smart, responsible, and caring Bee is. She's not shabby on the flute, either. 

  • Switching to first-person narration, Bee describes how her parents shower her with compliments at dinner that evening. She's busy thinking of bigger things, however. 

  • Back when she started at the Galer Street school, they promised her that they'd give her "anything [she] wanted for a graduation present'" (1.9). Well, she now knows what she wants. 

  • Namely, "'a family trip to Antarctica'" (1.13). We were thinking, like, a new PlayStation or something, but that works too. 

  • Bee hands her thoroughly confused parents brochures about their potential getaway. The best time for them to visit, Bee explains, is during Christmas, which is soon. 

  • After some hemming and hawing, her parents agree. Guess who's gonna be chilling (literally) with penguins on Christmas Eve? 

  • We cut ahead to the next day, Tuesday November 16. 

  • Again, we're presented with a document. This time, it's an email from Bernadette Fox (Bee's mom) to someone named Manjula Kapoor. 

  • Manjula must work for Bernadette, because Bernadette is asking her to work extra hours. Bernadette also makes an awkward joke about Hinduism, so Manjula is probably Indian. 

  • Bernadette tells Manjula about the Antarctica trip. She doesn't like leaving the house, but is determined to give it a shot for Bee, so she asks Manjula to handle the arrangements. 

  • She also alludes to some medical condition that Bee experienced, though she doesn't go into detail. 

  • Manjula, who we learn is Bernadette's "virtual assistant," happily agrees, asking for Bernadette's bank routing information so she can pay for the extra hours (1.34). 

  • A routing number? Yikes. Let's hope this isn't some weird scam. 

  • Next comes a letter dated Wednesday, November 17th. It's from Ollie Ordway, a consultant at the Galer Street School, and is addressed to the Galer Street School Parent Association. 

  • Written in hilarious corporate speak, the letter begs the parents to convince so-called "Mercedes Parents" to enroll their kids in the school (1.47). This influx of richies will help the school gain more resources and place them in higher esteem with universities. 

  • To that end, parent Audrey Griffin will be hosting a brunch for prospective parents. Everyone should be bending over backwards to convince their rich friends to drop by for a mimosa, says Ollie. 

  • The letter is followed by a note sent from Audrey Griffin to Tom, a blackberry abatement specialist, which is a hilariously specific profession. 

  • Apparently, Tom removed her blackberry bushes some time ago, but they've since grown back, which is a no-go for her upcoming brunch. She wants it fixed. Now. 

  • Tom responds with a note explaining that he did remove all the blackberries from her yard. These new ones must be coming from her neighbor's place. 

  • We cut to an email sent by fellow Galer Street parent Soo-Lin Lee-Segal to Audrey. As you can tell, this novel is primarily told through documents rather than narration. 

  • Soo-Lin gushes about how she recently sat next to Elgin Branch (Bee's dad) on the employee bus to Microsoft. She found him extremely rude, just as she always found his wife, Bernadette. 

  • In even worse news, Soo-Lin is freaking out because layoffs are in the air at Microsoft. She just hopes she isn't one of the poor souls who gets the axe. 

  • On Thursday, Audrey sends another letter to Tom, the blackberry expert, which reveals that her neighbor is the Branch family. 

  • She promises to confront Bernadette about the blackberry invasion when they pick up their kids from school later that day. 

  • We're presented with another email from Bernadette to Manjula. Bernadette attaches all the requested information and thanks Manjula for planning the trip. 

  • On Friday, Ms. Goodyear, Head of School at Galer Street, sends a note home to the students' parents. What's a Head of School? Is that the hippie dippie version of a principal? 

  • Apparently, there was an "incident at pickup yesterday" (1.94). She doesn't explain what happened, but mentions that Audrey Griffin was involved. 

  • This is followed by an emergency room bill that "Audrey Griffin gave to [Bee] to give to Mom” which lists an X-Ray, set of crutches, and handful of Vicodin (1.100). Sounds rough. 

  • Or maybe not. At the end of the bill, the doctor notes that there was nothing actually wrong with Audrey; she just demanded all that special treatment. Okay then. 

  • After being asked about the incident by Soo-Lin over email, Audrey dishes on what happened. 

  • Apparently, Audrey approached Bernadette's car in the pickup line at school that day. She knocked on the window, but Bernadette ignored her and drove off, running over her foot in the process. 

  • She's ticked that Ms. Goodyear didn't specifically call out Bernadette in her email. Like, is she even taking this fake injury seriously? 

  • On Monday, as demanded by Audrey, Ms. Goodyear sends out another letter, this time including Audrey's version of events. As to how accurate that version is, we have our doubts. 

  • From Bee's perspective, nothing even happened. Audrey approached the car, like she said, but Bernadette was waved ahead by the traffic officer before she got there, and the car didn't get anywhere close to her foot. 

  • On Tuesday, November 23, Bernadette sends another email to Manjula. Attached is a copy of the emergency room bill that Audrey (whom Bernadette describes as a "gnat") demanded she pay. 

  • Although she knows that she's innocent, Bernadette opts not to fight the "gnat battle" (1.128). Bee will be graduating soon. No need to cause a buzz. Pun intended. 

  • All the Antarctic planning is going well, so she also attaches photocopies of their passports (yikes) and a list of items they'll need. She wants Manjula to order those too. 

  • Manjula sends a short email as confirmation, but Bernadette responds with a rambling, multi-page affair. Buckle up, folks. 

  • She talks about how the family only moved to Seattle from L.A. because Elgie's animation company was purchased by Microsoft, whom she refers to as "Big Brother" (1.140). 

  • On her first visit, she found herself uninspired by her choices of real estate. Ultimately, she decided on a massive complex dubbed "Straight Gate," an abandoned former home for wayward girls, which is where they currently live. 

  • That's not creepy at all. 

  • Apparently, Bernadette bought a beach house, too. Seems like someone got a hefty acquisition fee from Microsoft, eh? 

  • Manjula responds with another brief confirmation email, somehow prompting Bernadette to launch into another mile-long monologue, this time requesting that Manjula make a reservation at the Washington Athletic Club for Thanksgiving dinner. 

  • Spoiler: it's all booked. Instead, Manjula books the family dinner at some place called Daniel's Broiler. Sounds classy. 

  • Bernadette spends Thanksgiving morning preparing their leaky house for the upcoming rain, setting up a "patchwork of plastic bags and towels" to keep things dry (1.174). 

  • The family talks about Bee's plans for high school. She seems interested in going to Choate Rosemary Hall, an elite East Coast boarding school which Bernadette also attended.

  • Daniel's Broiler, which turns out to be a weird tourist spot, is actually pretty fantastic. No complaints from Bee, especially after a giant slice of chocolate cake for dessert. 

  • On Monday, November 29, Audrey and Tom exchange more notes about those dastardly blackberries. The tone has grown increasingly hostile on both ends. 

  • Ultimately, Audrey agrees to pay Tom for his previous work if he gives Bernadette an estimate of how much it'll cost to remove her blackberries. 

  • Because she's a total creep, Audrey suggests that Tom come over to her house on 3 pm the following Monday, while Bernadette is picking up Bee from school. They'll sneak into the Branch's yard together for the inspection. 

  • Meanwhile, Bernadette sends another message to Manjula, this time complaining about the "Drake Passage," which they must pass through to reach Antarctica, and is known as "the most turbulent body of water on the planet" (1.232). 

  • Hello, seasickness. Goodbye, the contents of your stomach.  With this in mind, Bernadette asks Manjula to order her the most powerful anti-seasickness medication she can find. We're talking, like, industrial strength. 

  • Next comes a letter from Bruce Jessup, the dean of admissions at Choate. He has good news: Bee is accepted. 

  • Hillary Loundes, director of studies at the school, sends another letter directly to Bee's parents, telling them that Bee is such an exceptional student that they want her to skip directly to tenth grade. 

  • Bernadette sends Manjula an email describing her mixed feelings about the news. She's worried that a preppy, rich kid school like Choate might not be best for Bee, not to mention the fact that it's on the other side of the country. Skipping a grade doesn't sound like the best fit either. 

  • That same day, Bernadette picks up Bee from school with a problem that needs solving: Ice Cream, their family dog, somehow got stuck in Bee's closet. 

  • Back at home, Bernadette climbs up a ladder, breaks into the room, and kicks down the door to free Ice Cream. Is Bernadette secretly a special agent or something? 

  • After her daring rescue, Bernadette tells Bee the "good" news about Choate. They pick up Papa Elgie from Microsoft to celebrate, but he's too occupied by a business call to do much partying. 

  • Later that day, Elgie sends a response to Ms. Loundes. While he appreciates her offer to have Bee skip a grade, he thinks that she'll be more fulfilled by staying on track. 

  • He explains that Bee "was born with a heart defect, which required a half-dozen surgeries" (1.289). She's managed to thrive since then, but it's an important part of her story. 

  • Taking over as narrator, Bee explains that she was so young when everything happened that she doesn't even remember it. She hates it when people make a big fuss about it. 

  • On Thursday, December 2, Soo-Lin sends another email to Audrey Griffin. It turns out she didn't get fired. 

  • In fact, she's been promoted to work on a highly secretive project, which has the unfortunate side effect of preventing her from attending the big Prospective Parent Brunch. 

  • Audrey congratulates her about the new gig and trash talks Bernadette. Y'know...the usual. 

  • Meanwhile, Bernadette receives a response from Manjula, who tells her that she's found a powerful motion sickness medication called ABHR transdermal cream that Bernadette can pick up from a local pharmacy. 

  • On Monday, Bee is sent home early after the school nurse sees her hawking up phlegm and freaks out, even though Bee thinks there's nothing to worry about. 

  • On the way home, she tells her mom about how she's going to lead the school's first-graders in a musical performance at the upcoming World Celebration Day. 

  • Back home, Bee goes upstairs to do homework while Bernadette heads out to the Petit Trianon, which sounds fancy, but is in fact just a trailer in the back of the house where Bernie chills. 

  • Bee hears a commotion outside. She looks out the window and sees Bernadette talking with Audrey and a man we presume to be Tom. 

  • Bernadette is ticked off, but takes the high road, agreeing to pay Tom to remove the blackberry bushes from her yard. Crisis averted. 

  • Later that day, Bernadette send two emails to Manjula. The first is a request to send payment to Tom for the impending blackberry massacre. 

  • The second asks Manjula to make an 8 foot by 5 foot sign with the following text: "PRIVATE PROPERTY, NO TRESPASSING, Galer Street Gnats Will Be Arrested and Hauled Off to Gnat Jail" (1.362.). 

  • We're not sure if that's passive-aggressive or just aggressive-aggressive. Either way, it'll get the point across. 

  • The following day, Manjula confirms Bernadette's requests and sends her the information about the pharmacy where she can pick up her prescription. 

  • On Friday, December 10, Bernadette sends Manjula an email telling her that she will be picking up her prescription today. 

  • She also thanks her for ordering the fishing vest she requested for the trip. She likes it so much that she's already wearing it, which doesn't exactly smack of high fashion. 

  • Soo-Lin continues her email correspondence with Audrey. She has even better news this time: the project she's being assigned to as an admin is Samantha 2...the biggest project at Microsoft. 

  • The only problem is that Samantha 2 is headed by none other than Elgin Branch. In fact, Elgin had announced the project to the public himself during a live TED Talk. 

  • Soo-Lin is skeptical of Elgin given their previous encounter, leading her to feel anxious ahead of a lunch later that day with the leaders of her new team, including Elgin. 

  • Audrey responds with good news of her own: Tom is currently decimating the blackberry population of the Branch's yard. Blackberry pies for everyone. 

  • There's bad news, though. Galer Street found Audrey's valium in her son Kyle's locker, which is a huge no-no. Audrey doesn't get the fuss. It's a prescription medication, after all. 

  • We're treated to another email from Bernadette to Manjula. Bernadette has dropped all pretenses at this point and starts by talking about how difficult it is to park in Seattle. 

  • She writes about her trip to the pharmacy. When she picked up her prescription, the pharmacist warned her against the medication, saying that it's basically an "antipsychotic" (1.428). 

  • As a replacement, he prescribes her a motion sickness patch and some Xanax, even though Bernadette already has Xanax because of her severe insomnia. 

  • Bernadette also casually writes about a recent suicide attempt. She can't even remember the reason. 

  • At the pharmacy, she sits down on a couch next to the front window and falls asleep. The next thing she knows, Elgie is standing over her, waking her up. Huh? How did he get here? 

  • He looks unsettled, especially when he notices her fishing vest. Bernadette is equally unsettled when she looks out the window and sees other Microsoft employees, including one "gnat from Galer Street" (1.456). 

  • Confused and upset, Bernadette runs off and ends up in front of a library. That's when something strange happens. Or, at least, something stranger

  • A random guy approaches and seems to recognize her, which is unusual for Bernadette, who claims that the most recent picture of her was taken twenty years ago, before some ominous event she refers to as "the Huge Hideous Thing" (1.461). 

  • We don't hear how that interaction ends, however. 

  • Bee doesn't notice anything unusual when Bernadette picks her up from school later that day. They listen to a depressing news story about the war in the Congo. 

  • Workmen are already removing the blackberries when they get back home. Bee is upset. She's always loved those blackberries and wasn't told they were going anywhere. 

  • Soo-Lin sends another email to Audrey Griffin gushing about the event of earlier that day. 

  • After lunch with Elgin and Pablo, another Samantha 2 director, Soo-Yin witnessed the whole Bernadette-asleep-in-a-fishing-vest ordeal. Perfect gossip fodder for her bestie. 

  • When Elgin returned from talking with Bernadette, he immediately rescheduled a flight from later that day to the following morning, even though that could make him late for a big presentation. 

  • Next comes a letter from Jacob Raymond to Paul Jellinek. According to Bee, Jacob is the guy who recognized her mom at the library. 

  • Jacob, who's a student of Paul's, gushes about his chance encounter with Bernadette Fox. He talks about her work, "Beeber Bifocal" and the "Twenty Mile House," though it's not clear what either of those things are (1.508). 

  • Bernadette and Elgin go out to dinner alone that night, leaving Bee to hang out at a youth group all evening. 

  • Elgin leaves the next morning. Bee and Bernadette decide to spend the night at their beach home in Bainbridge. Bee even invites her friend Kennedy to sleep over. 

  • On Saturday, Ollie-O sends out an itinerary for the big brunch. The weather seems like it will be a little cloudy, but he won't let that rain on his parade. Literally. 

  • Later, he sends out a panicked email about Bernadette's newly revealed sign, which is directly facing Audrey's backyard. This is a red alert, people. 

  • The next email comes from Helen Derwood, PhD, and is sent to the Galer Street Parents email group. She describes herself as a specialist in PTSD, which isn't a good sign for the brunch. 

  • According to Helen, the brunch started off swell despite the heavy rain. Everyone gathered in Audrey's sunroom to watch the school's kindergarteners perform a marimba routine. 

  • In the middle of the performance, there's a loud commotion from outside. Helen tries to open the back door to see what's happening, but is prevented from doing so by a strong force coming from the backyard. 

  • When she returns to the performance, the windows are all broken and mud is streaming into the room, sending the parents and students rushing away. 

  • After the mud stops, Bernadette's anti-gnat sign floats into the room. Poetic, isn't it? 

  • Helen tries to find Audrey, but she's already run off. How responsible. 

  • Helen closes the email by describing the symptoms of PTSD to the parents and advising them to talk to her if they have any concerns about their children following the incident. 

  • According to Bee, the weather was so "freakish" that day that they closed the ferries, which had only ever happened before on 9/11 (1.568). 

  • They didn't know this at the time, however, so they sat in the line for the ferry for some time and listened to Abbey Road by the Beatles. It's a sweet moment. 

  • Once they realize that the ferry line isn't moving, they head back home, still singing along with the Fab Five. 

  • In their driveway, they're approached by a frantic-looking Audrey Griffin, who shouts accusingly that Bernadette's "'hillside just slid into [her] home'" (1.605). 

  • Bernadette clearly feels bad and offers to pay for everything. But Audrey's not so willing to forgive her, especially after seeing the gigantic sign washed up in the middle of her house. 

  • Audrey loses her lid and begins absolutely roasting Bernadette, telling her that she doesn't "'belong'" here in Seattle and "'never will'" (1.647). 

  • Bee joins the fray and Audrey claims that she's only being sent to boarding school because her parents don't love her. Oh, girl, you're gonna get it for that one. 

  • And get it she does: Bee slaps Audrey across the face. That's one way to get your message across. 

  • Bernadette calls Bee "'supercool'" when they get back into the car, but Bee doesn't want to bask in the glory (1.668). 

  • She's sad because she knows they'll never be able to listen to Abbey Road together again, as it will be forever tied to this traumatic memory. 

  • What's more, Bee claims that this is the event that changed Bernadette, despite the varied theories of the people around her. 

  • She provides as evidence another email from her mom to Manjula, sent only five minutes after the incident. 

  • In this shockingly brief email, Bernadette announces that she's emotionally unable to go to Antarctica, and needs to figure out some way of getting out of it. 

  • Our next document is a letter from Elgin to Dr. Janelle Kurtz, a psychologist at Madrona Hill Hospital. 

  • Elgin starts by telling her that he got her contact info from a friend who had inpatient mental health services with her. He wants her to do the same for Bernadette. 

  • He tells her about how he and his wife met "twenty-five year ago in Los Angeles" (1.678). He was working at an animation studio, and she was the architect who was redesigning their office. 

  • When he got bought out by Microsoft, Bernadette was going through a tough time with a big project, so she was gung-ho about moving to Seattle, much to his surprise. 

  • In fact, Bernadette bought Straight Gate because she had a dream of redesigning it and turning it into her fantastical dream home. Makes sense for an architect. 

  • Then she suffers a series of miscarriages. It takes her three years to conceive Bee. 

  • Elgin writes about Bee's early medical struggles and her miraculous rebound to full health, minus being short. There are worse things. 

  • After Bee improves, Bernadette doesn't dive into redesigning the house, however. She loses interest in everything but ranting about how much she hates Seattle. 

  • With Microsoft consuming more and more of his life, and Bernadette becoming increasingly isolated and hostile, the couple grows apart. 

  • That brings us to the pharmacy misadventure from before. On top of the general weirdness of the situation, he wrongly assumes she was there to get antipsychotic medication. 

  • At their dinner later that night, he tried to confront her about this, but she just kept ranting about Seattle, the Galer Street gnats, and his new gnat of an admin, Soo-Lin. 

  • He prods her about the pharmacy until she explains that she was just getting anti-motion sickness medication because she's afraid of the Drake Passage. 

  • Elgin pushes her to see a mental health professional. She protests, but all her explanations just make her seem crazier in Elgin's eyes. 

  • When they get home, Elgin realizes that there is now a valley between "Bernadette Past and Present" (1.740). She's no longer the woman he fell in love with. 

  • Finally, he gets to the point. He wants to go on the vacation to Antarctica alone with Bee while Dr. Kurtz takes Bernadette in for some "supervised R&R" (1.745). 

  • And by "supervised R&R," he of course means institutionalization at a mental health facility. Things are about to get turned up a notch.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...