It begins, as so many Bainbridge stories do, on a tennis court.
From there the Widdicombe family’s summer spirals, ultimately involving some drastic decorating, a whiff of romance, a healthy dose of heartbreak, a bit of chemical dependency and a veritable maelstrom of uncovered secrets, preposterous misunderstandings and irrepressible passions set against the seemingly idyllic backdrop of their new home, Willowbrook Manor, on Bainbridge Island.
Named one of the year’s most anticipated reads by LitHub and Entertainment Weekly, Evan James’ “Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe: A Novel” has been called a hilarious and sophisticated comedy of manners from a bright new voice in contemporary fiction.
James is an award-winning writer whose personal essays and fiction have appeared in such publications as the Oxford American,Travel + Leisure, and The New York Times, among others.
He received an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has received fellowships from Yaddo, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Carson McCullers Center, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, the University of Iowa, and the Lambda Literary Writers’ Retreat — where he was a 2017 Emerging LGBTQ Voices Fellow.
He has taught at the University of Iowa, the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and currently teaches creative writing and English at Pierrepont School in Westport, Connecticut.
It’s a far cry from where he began, though, and the source of his novel’s inspiration.
Write what you know, the old would-be author adage goes. And James boasts an island pedigree beyond reproach. Though he now resides in New York, in setting his satire on the beautiful shores of Bainbridge he knew very well of what he wrote.
Born in Seattle, the island boy attended Ordway Elementary School, Commodore Options School, Woodward Middle School and graduated from Bainbridge High. He played on the school tennis team, worked at the Streamliner Diner and the Winslow Way Cafe, and was a frequent shopper at Eagle Harbor Book Company, a personally beloved locale to which he will return to celebrate the release of this, his first novel, at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 4.
“It was a really important place to me while I was growing up,” James said. “I would pop in there all the time and just made so many great discoveries for myself browsing in there.
“I’m really excited to be back there and reminiscent and answer questions.”
James marked the book’s actual publication date with a reading at another bookstore which held similar personal significance for him.
“The bookstore I read at [Tuesday] I worked at for two years, and it kind of reminds of Eagle Harbor [Book Company],” he said. “It’s also a community gathering space, and a place I feel like I go in for books but also human connection and that sort of sustenance.
“I just think that’s a really wonderful thing to have in your life.”
“Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe” is a comedy of characters and situations that began with a childhood of real experiences and an actual locale.
“I started reading a lot of comedic fiction and become really obsessed with P.G. Wodehouse … who writes these very delightful, farcical novels,” James said. “In particular he has a series of novels set in a place called Blandings Castle, and I really liked the idea of trying to write a comedy that was kind of like that — sort of a castle comedy with a big ensemble cast.
“When I started sitting down to play around with it, Bainbridge emerged as a place that seemed kind of comparable in way, I think just because it was so deep in my bones it was natural for me to write about it.”
Even more specifically, Willowbrook Manor has a real world inspiration as well: Bainbridge’s iconic Westinghouse-Lindbergh House, an extremely private Georgian-style estate built in 1908 on a parcel of land that was formerly an apple orchard, was the spiritual model of the Widdicombe family estate.
“The home in my novel is obviously a different place than that, but it kind of started with my imaging that place and imaging a bunch of people there during a summer having a bunch of wacky interconnected conflicts and comedic happenings,” James said.
The Widdicombe family isolates themselves inside those walls on an already somewhat isolated island, that isolation being key to much of the comedy, James explained.
“It felt like [Bainbridge] lent itself to a comic novel … because it’s a very contained environment,” he said. “I was just thinking earlier this morning about all the years I spent growing up there and how seldom I actually left the island. I would spend my time hanging out with friends and driving around and playing music or whatever.”
Not that Bainbridge Islanders have a monopoly on that sort of thing.
“In some way I think people are just like that,” James said. “I live in uptown Manhattan and a lot of my friends in live Brooklyn and we almost never see each other. Nobody wants to go 45 minutes away from their home.”
James will have a collection of nonfiction personal essays published next year, around the same time as the paperback version of “Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe.”
At the Eagle Harbor Book Company event, the author said he intends to read an excerpt of the novel, answer questions and share some stories from his own formative years on the Rock.
Of the reaction of his hometown to it’s depiction in the book, he said he’s prepared for all contingencies.
“I’m girding my loins for the Q&A.”
Visit www.eagleharoborbooks.com to learn more and purchase a copy of “Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe.”