Image via boston.com
Architects make for good fictional characters; examples abound, from Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark to Tom Hanks’s character in Sleepless in Seattle. Almost none of these fictional architects, however, are women. The protagonist in Maria Semple’s widely acclaimed new book, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, is an exception.
Bernadette is a former architect living in Seattle, and is trying to cope with the city’s inherent wackiness. After her daughter Bee asks for a family trip to Antarctica as a graduation present, Bernadette disappears. A recent Washington Post review of the book gives a delightful synopsis of the neurotic looniness that Seattle forces on this female architect:
"Bee’s mother, Bernadette Fox, is an elegant recluse, an eccentric, borderline agoraphobic who seems to dislike everyone outside her nuclear family. She outsources errands and confides in her only friend, Manjula, a “virtual assistant” in India to whom she pays 75 cents an hour. Bernadette bristles at crunchy Seattle culture with its loopy support groups and its two styles of coiffure: “short gray hair and long gray hair.” A once-celebrated architect who won a MacArthur genius award, Bernadette has become paralyzed at midlife, holed up in a crumbling former girls’ school she purchased as the family home. It rains inside the rooms, and blackberry vines poke up through the floorboards. “All day and night it cracks and groans, like it’s trying to get comfortable but can’t,” Bee observes of the house that seems a metaphor for her mother’s emotional disrepair."
Of course, it might be problematic that when we finally have a female architect as a main character in a story, she is prone to emotional difficulties and wandering off into the Antarctic night. But perhaps, this is simply a way of showing the burdens that trying to break the architecture world’s plexiglass ceiling puts on a person. Either way, this book is a great first step toward giving female designers the attention they deserve.