While Branch works in an abstract mode, turning ideas into technology for people he doesn’t know, Fox creates deeply personal works. Her residential projects—not houses, but homes—incorporate all of her quirks and habits. Her nervous tic of knitting becomes functional, as she knits abandoned glasses frames into screens to be used as room dividers. Fox has been mostly sidelined in the competition for significant commissions: She's considered too stubborn to take orders but too quirky to take the lead. When given the absolute freedom of creating her own house, then, she sees every component as an opportunity for innovation, from specifying unexpected materials to building her own furniture. The risk of creating deeply personal work is that it can be all the more difficult to distance oneself from its rejection or destruction. Semple compassionately ties this theme into a series of miscarriages. Fox feels the same mothering energy for her homes as she did for her failed pregnancies, and she responds to her destroyed house as some would to a lost child. She created something bodily, and now it is gone.
The point of the novel, then, is how to unstick stuck Bernadette Fox, and it uses all its madcap resources to solve the puzzle—which is where the book wanders off into the weeds. The satirical tone veers too far toward the vapid. The supporting characters, all there to push Fox toward her breakdown and breakthrough, are more viper than human. Semple switches the perspective of the novel from character to character, allowing each her own say, but most remain more cardboard cutout than person: There's the single-mother-yoga type who inserts self-help speak from her support group, Victims Against Victimhood, into every conversation; there's the gray-haired hippy-hypocrite who quickly turns harridan, threatening her landscaper, her son's teachers, and Fox herself with destruction for every small trespass. And by the end of the book, everyone has learned an important lesson about life—and I do mean everyone. Even Branch’s admin and the neighbor’s son come out better people for the process.
The redemptive arc plagues contemporary literature, and Semple doesn’t just put up a fight against it, she invites it into every corner of her novel. But what ultimately saves Bernadette Fox, the novel and the character, is their unexpected paths to salvation. (Semple deserves credit for keeping her novel out of the work–life balance morass. Every time you think she's driving in that direction, she safely navigates around it.) Simply put, Fox must acknowledge there is a world outside her door in order to venture back into it. Semple doesn't rely on clichés about the Ayn Rand–ian struggle for the genius to overcome her contemporaries' conformity, or a foolish public who doesn't recognize brilliance when they see it. Fox has already "found her voice." But both houses she built before her disappearance were intended for her own private use—what she needs instead is to use her voice to speak about something other than herself. It's the spark of a project that would employ her personal vision in an impersonal way that drags her out of her cloister.
Behind all of the distraction, all of the zaniness and attention-getting stylistic tricks, though, is a lovely story of a creative lull. Not to get all Good Will Hunting about it, but there is something to the idea that a person of great talent or genius owes it, if not to themselves, then to the world, to keep working and persevere over adversity. What else are you going to do with all that energy, run the bake sale at your child’s school? Not even Bernadette Fox would stoop so low.