For Mental Health Awareness Month, we take a look at Maria Semple’s ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’. The book tells the story of a woman trapped between two major problems - one is the traumatic blow her creative life suffered following a professional setback; the other is the frailty of her mental health.
Bernadette used to be a pioneering architect and served as an inspiration to many as a lively, brilliant and tenacious woman in a predominantly male-dominated field.
When one of her famous, award-winning houses was bought only to be demolished and used as a parking lot, Bernadette loses her creative vision, ambition and inner strength. In the meantime, her personal life takes several other blows which drive her into an even deeper crisis: the challenge of dealing with fertility problems and miscarriages, caring for a sick child, and the pressures of a crumbling marriage.
Bernadette’s spark and appetite for life come from the interaction with others, from palpable experiences and sitting on the edge of her comfort zone, from novelty, from the rush of discovery and movement. Most importantly, they are all derived from the very act of creating and when this stops, so does her interest in herself and everything else that surrounds her. But her love and interest in Bee, her daughter, never lose intensity. Even when depression, anxiety and agoraphobia are settling in, Bernadette always finds the inner resources to connect with her daughter, to stay present and active in her world - they laugh, joke, and blast their hearts out to 80’s tunes. And while Bernadette may not be perfect, she is Bee’s best friend - “I love Mom just the way she is,” she says.
When reconnecting with her mentor, Paul Jellinek (Laurence Fishburne), Bernadette receives a piece of advice that encapsulates her story. He tells her: “People like you must create. If you don’t create, you will become a menace to society.” This quote highlights the link between Bernadette’s creativity and mental health as two inter-dependent, co-existing facets of her being that will shape her life’s journey.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? isn’t about the pressures of choosing career over family or family over career. It’s not about traditional gender roles or even criticizing architecture’s professional challenges. Instead, this story tells us that we were destined for something, and once we find and pursue that goal, we’re better able to serve both our ideals and those around us.
As Bernadette elopes to Antarctica and rediscovers her love for life and architecture, she doesn’t dismiss or lose sight of the people she loves. She has indeed been blessed with many gifts … and the greatest of all, she knows, is her daughter.
Watch the trailer here:
About Maria Semple
Maria Semple is the bestselling author of Today Will Be Different (2016), Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012) and This One is Mine (2008). Her novels have been translated into over 30 languages. Before writing fiction, Maria wrote for the TV shows Arrested Development, Mad About You, Ellen, 90210 and others.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette, an international bestseller, spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list, and made over a dozen year-end best lists. It was short-listed for the Women’s Prize and received the Alex Award from the American Library Association. It was turned into a 2019 film directed by Richard Linklater and starring Cate Blanchett. Today Will Be Different was an instant international bestseller and was featured on the cover of the New York Times book review.