was the inspiration for THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS?
Like the Ms. Bradwells, I was a different person when I left law
school than I had been when I arrived. This book is absolutely an ode to
my law school friends and the University of Michigan Law School itself
for helping me discover strengths I didn’t know I had. But it’s also an
exploration of the challenges we faced as women coming into a
male-dominated professional world—one that expected us to politely ride
pink elevators to pink dining rooms in clubs that wouldn’t have us as
members, and to turn away unwanted advances from colleagues and clients
without offending anyone.
What is the significance of the title THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS?
“The Ms. Bradwells” is a collective nickname a law professor bestows
on the four main characters as they answer questions about Bradwell v.
Illinois. It’s an 1873 Supreme Court opinion denying Mrs. Myra Bradwell
the right to practice law because she was a woman. Justice Bradley
wrote, “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to
the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil
life. . . . The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill
the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the
Creator.” Suffice it to say my Ms. Bradwells—who are neither naturally
nor properly timid, much less delicate—don’t agree.
You’ve built a strong reputation for writing about the bonds of
female friendship and the complex issues women care about most (The
Language of Light and The Wednesday Sisters). What draws you to stories
about the dynamics of female friendship and the challenges women face?
Dipping into fictional friendships allows me to wrap myself up every
morning in the spirit of my geographically-scattered real-life friends
and call it “work.” The subject matter—friends helping each other
through the kinds of challenges women face—is a reflection of those
friendships, too. But it’s also a celebration of the women who came
before me—who opened the world to me and to women of my generation—and
an acknowledgement that there is still more change to be made. And a
small measure of hope, I suppose, that writing about it will help move
Each of the four main characters (Mia, Laney, Betts, and Ginger) has
been affected by discrimination of some kind—whether for their gender,
race/ethnicity. What is your message here? Have you ever been
I kept score for my brother’s little league team, and watched with
longing a game I wasn’t allowed to play because I was a girl. I couldn’t
apply to Columbia as an undergraduate because they didn’t admit women in
1977. Those things have changed, at least.
But when the head of my department at my law firm sat me down to tell me
he was going to recommend a male classmate for partner over me, he
didn’t disagree that I was the better lawyer; what he said was, “He has
a wife and children to take care of, and you have your husband.” He
wouldn’t have said he was discriminating against me. He would have said
he was doing what was best for everyone in a tough economy, and he
couldn’t get us both in the door. He considered us close friends. That
decision he made reflects the kind of insidious discrimination I think
remains deeply imbedded in our society. The group I started with at the
law firm was roughly balanced between men and women, but the group that
was granted partnership was not.
Most of the discrimination I’ve faced is of that sort: an assertive man
is, well, assertive, while a woman somehow becomes “pushy”; a woman who
turns away unwanted advances is “frigid” ; a sexually promiscuous man
“sows wild oats” while a women behaving similarly is judged a “slut.” Do
we even have a term that would condemn male behavior as anything like “slutty”?
And on the flip side, a woman who leaves a career to tend to young
children—that’s normal. But a man doing that? What’s wrong with him?
That’s certainly one of the things I hope readers of THE FOUR MS.
BRADWELLS will become more aware of: the difference made by things as
simple as the words we use and the presumptions we make, the amount of
attention we pay to and judgments we make based on clothing and bodies
and beauty. It’s not just men. We do it to ourselves. And gender
discrimination limits men as surely as it limits women—just as all kinds
of discrimination limit us all.
The novel is set in the beautiful, but isolated landscape of Cook
Island? What attracted you to this setting? Is it personally significant
I’d actually meant THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS to be set primarily at the
Michigan Law School before I came upon Tom Horton’s An Island Out of
Time and, through it, became enchanted with Smith Island (renamed Cook
Island in the novel). It’s a world untethered to the mainland, where
even the way people speak, in British-leaning accents with improbable
preposition choices, is unique. When I first visited Smith—after my
first draft was written—I borrowed boots to wade through the bay as it
lapped against the sun porch after an amazing storm, and Tom Horton was
kind enough to take me on a black-night boat ride I will not soon
forget. But I’m restless; there are so many places in the world I want
to see. And being in a new place—particularly a place of natural
beauty—somehow provides me a great emotional space from which to write.
Secrets are a central theme in this novel. What is the message here?
I suppose the thing about secrets is that we often keep them out of
shame. And the things that shame us often shouldn’t. They’re often
things that are not our fault—and yet they’re also often things that we
will be judged for, consciously or not. Or failures that we and others
can learn from if we’re willing to examine what happened. Is there a
message in that? I suppose that if more of us shared our secrets we
might see how common life’s challenges are. But it takes a brave person
to come forward.
The book is told in alternating perspectives between the four main
characters (Mia, Laney, Betts, and Ginger). What was the most
challenging aspect of writing from four perspectives? Did you prefer one
character over the other?
If I had to choose only one of them now, it would probably be
Ginger. She’s not always the most likable, but most needs the support of
friends. I’d hate to abandon her. But I have great compassion for all
the Ms. Bradwells. Great love, really. It’s a funny thing, to say you
love something that doesn’t really exist, but there it is.
They’re so alive and distinct in my head, but they have so much in
common, too: Betts is a Michigan-trained lawyer, and Mia is a
Michigan-trained lawyer, and so are Laney and Ginge. They’re all roughly
the same age. They’ve all been deeply affected by the events of this one
Spring Break, and by their shared friendship. They all speak in the
first person, too. I think first person is more intimate, and I wanted
the reader to have that close, speaking-directly-with-you feeling for
each of Mia, Laney, Betts and Ginge.
You were a lawyer at a high-powered firm before becoming a published
author. What made you want to become a writer? How did you make the
Growing up (isn’t that where all dreams start?), I was a huge
reader, but I thought writing novels meant being able to leaping tall
literary buildings in single bounds. The adults I knew were
businessmen—not even business women; the “ladies” were moms and teachers
and nuns. Even a girl going to law school was a stretch, but less of
one. It wasn’t my dream, but it was something I thought I could do. My
husband, Mac, was the first adult to whom I admitted my childhood
aspirations to write, and he gave me a great big push. He said,
basically, “Your dream, Meg. How will you ever know if you can do it
unless you try?” So I just started putting pen to paper, reading more
and deconstructing what I read, trying to learn how to write. Which I’m
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a sequel of sorts to my second novel, The Wednesday
Sisters. It follows three of the daughters of the Wednesday Sisters as
they take one of the sister’s ashes to the England Lake District—home of
Beatrix Potter—to scatter them.