When I first met Bernadette Fox, I wasn’t sure what to think. Fox, the protagonist of Maria Semple’s epistolary novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, is a middle-aged female architect who no longer practices, the mother of an eighth grader, an unwilling resident of Seattle, and a MacArthur “genius” award winner married to a TED-talking AI specialist. Two days before Christmas, she disappears on a cruise to Antarctica.
The book was hilarious and felt so real—except for the disappearing part. I started to pick at the details. How long has knitting been a subversive craft? When was the color pink co-opted by feminists? Was Bernadette an avatar of thwarted female creativity for her time or for ours? My real question, embedded in a blog post I wrote for Design Observer at the time, was whether Bernadette Fox was a good role model.
Creating a role model wasn’t Semple’s intention, but as a woman in architecture who, when I read the book in 2013, had a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, the book’s entwined storylines of motherhood and genius and how women find the space to make something great… well, I found it hard not to identify. I rooted for Bernadette against the “Galer Street gnats,” the private school moms who didn’t understand her disinterest in participating in school activities or taking care of her yard. I rooted for Bernadette to seem like a gift and not a problem for her workaholic husband. I rooted for Bernadette and the sense of adventure she shared only with her daughter, Bee.
On August 16, the movie adaptation of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” arrives in theaters, directed by Richard Linklater and starring Cate Blanchett as Bernadette. I had cast Julianne Moore in my head while reading the book, but no matter. Movie Bernadette sports the bangs and round sunglasses of the Keith Hayes illustration on the front of the book. Billy Crudup plays her Microsoft engineer husband, Elgin Branch; Kristin Wiig plays her mom-nemesis Audrey Griffin in a series of holiday turtlenecks straight from L.L.Bean; Emma Nelson plays Bernadette’s daughter, the delightful Bee Branch, whom you will want to adopt. (Light spoilers for both the book and the film ahead.)
When I heard that Bernadette was going to be made into a movie, I was excited. Every time I shared news of its progress on Twitter, other women in architecture were excited too. Bernadette meant something to all of us. But what?