This women’s fiction novel is a study in reality and the misperceptions that can build up from simple changes in perspective. Each character presents a different version of the same story and within that version there is then retellings. All of this is assembled in the cobbled together timeline of an epistolary novel. This style works so perfectly to illustrate the ease with which reality can be skewed from person to person.
Who is Bernadette?
This women’s fiction novel follows the story of Bernadette Fox, an architect of renown and mystery, who has moved to Seattle from Los Angeles, and lives a life of reclusion in an abnormal fashion. She purchased an old school for her family to live in, but the building is decrepit with invasive blackberry vines. The family grows so used to the vines and the way they force portions of the home to be closed off they they don’t notice any longer. This works to further support the illusive quality of reality. Because although the house is falling down, they live in it without mentioning the faults. It’s outsiders that point out the absurdity of living in such a situation.
There are many layers of “mis-reality” in this women’s fiction novel, but I wouldn’t say that any of them are incorrect. It’s the perception of the reality the author is displaying, and perception can change from person to person. So it’s not wrong. It’s only that the author placed the spotlight on this natural phenomenon that can be unsettling.
Take Bernadette for example as it could be argued she is the biggest “victim” of this phenomenon. Bernadette tells her former architect colleague that it’s the crippling of failure that has kept her suspended in this strange non-existence in Seattle. For her, reality is shaped by this failure. Everything else is pushed out to accommodate the overwhelming grip of failing. It’s the lens through which she views her life and the events occurring about her.
She sees the old school as a project. Fix it up like the rest of her projects and make something great out of it. She has the failure of her past project, the Twenty Mile House, staring her down though, and instead of doing anything about the school, it falls into further disrepair and she hides in an Airstream in the yard because that’s the only habitable place. But in her mind, she’s stuck at the Twenty Mile House and the old school is her chance at redemption. But is it?
If she hides in the Airstream in the yard, isn’t she avoiding reality all together?
Who is the Villain?
The idea of these layers of reality prevents the establishment of a true “villain.” At the beginning of the story, you take an instant dislike to Bernadette’s neighbor, Audrey. But through the unveiling of the story, you soon realize that Audrey is going through her own unraveling of the reality she’s created around her workaholic husband who avoids her and her drug-addicted son. While you want to hate Audrey, you can’t. She’s suffering the same illusion of reality as Bernadette but in her own terms. So in the end, she’s not a villain. She’s just another victim of the intangible quality of reality.
Elgin, Bernadette’s husband, was a curious layer of this puzzle of reality, because he deals in such absolutes as an engineer at Microsoft. He looks at Bernadette and sees only what must be happening based on logical steps. But Bernadette isn’t being logical. She’s avoiding reality, and so Elgin’s interpretation of her cannot be accurate because it’s based on an untruth.
Add in to this the fact the story is told through the pieced together collaboration of their daughter, Bee, a middle schooler dealing with her own shifting reality. She’s graduating from middle school to attend a boarding school across country based on a reality her mother has framed for her and yet is not her own, truthful experience of it. She’s our narrator, and with her own limited view and tainted perspective, can she be trusted?
Maria Semple is the author of three novels and a passionate writing teacher based on the bio from her website. She’s also written for TV, which comes across in the style of her writing in the novel.
Have you read Where’d You Go Bernadette?
Tell us what you thought of it in the comments – but please, no spoilers!