Every so often, an artist drops off the map. While so many others clamor toward the spotlight, those already there decide one day to simply step out of it. And so Greta Garbo hides herself away, J. D. Salinger runs visitors and journalists off his woodland property, Grigori Perelman stuns the world with his mathematical insight and then disappears into the night. But there’s another version of going recluse, a version disappointingly suburban in nature: The creator who just stops creating, who fills her time with raising a family and the mundane matters of daily life. There’s no cabin in the woods, no “I want to be alone” proclamation. They remain in plain sight, they just ... stop.
In Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple asks a very interesting question about such a recluse: What do they do with all of that creative energy? And with Bernadette Fox, the titular protagonist, the answer is that the energy she once put toward the design and creation of innovative houses is now spent on her own destruction. Not in a clichéd haze of pills and booze; she instead becomes sour, fearful. The MacArthur genius grant fellow now spends her time ranting for hours about Seattle traffic and the mothers at her daughter Bee's private school. Fox doesn’t much come out of her house anymore, and when she does, it’s to destroy her neighbor’s personal property in a petty feud. She posts Salinger-esque “No Trespassing” signs on the boundaries of her yard and jealously polices the property line. A colleague writes to her, “People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.”
Bernadette Fox was, twenty years before we meet her, a promising, young architect. She was designing sustainably before anyone was green, we are told, and while she only ever created two buildings, she became widely influential. Her two creations were both houses. Her first solo project was an adaptive-reuse of a glasses factory, which she converted into her own private Los Angeles home. The second was a project called the Twenty Mile House. Starting with an empty lot, Fox declared to her collaborators and her contractors that no materials should be sourced from locations farther than twenty miles away. Materials were recycled, repurposed, rescued from dumpsters. The result: an eco-friendly house that feels “like walking into a big hug,” and a new way of building without waste, as even the catalogs left behind in the factory were glued together to create chairs.
And then, due to a combination of bad luck, pride, and Fox’s vindictive side, the house was destroyed before it could even be documented in photographs. The elusive house and the elusive architect became stuff of legend; Fox retreated to Seattle when her husband’s tech company was sold to Microsoft. She never built another house and allowed the fixer-upper they moved into to fall apart around her. Her husband, Elgin Branch, a genius of his own sort, plays an interesting contrast to Fox. His creations are constantly used up and spat out by Microsoft. The tech he created for veterans with catastrophic injuries becomes just another video game toy at the company, and yet he still gets up every day, goes to work, and tries again. His frustration at the separation between the two of them spills out at one point. “What you went through with the Twenty Mile House—I go through shit like that ten times a day at Microsoft,” Branch yells at her. “People get over things. It’s called bouncing back ... Do you realize how selfish and self-pitying that is?”
It’s easy to join Branch in wondering why Fox can’t just get over the disappointment of a project gone wrong and start again. Or, it would be, if Semple didn’t do such an insightful job in her book at showing how failure has a tendency to compound. When one setback follows another—a fall breaks a woman's leg, and another a week later snaps her crutch in half—a person of a certain temperament might take it as a sign that the gods didn't want her walking in the first place.