Set in corporate Dallas, Chandler Baker’s buzzy thriller Whisper Network dives into the complicated world of sexual harassment at work during the #MeToo era and earns her a spot on Reese Witherspoon’s book-club list.
By Courtney Runn, Author photo by Eryn Chandler
On July 1, Chandler Baker got the Instagram notification she had been waiting months for: “Reese Witherspoon tagged you in a post.”
After being sworn to secrecy, Baker could finally announce to her friends and family and the world that Witherspoon chose her sixth novel, Whisper Network, as the July pick for the Hello Sunshine Book Club. Women have been buying books from celebrities since Oprah’s wildly successful book club and Witherspoon is one of the latest to lend her star power to authors in the digital age. From theSkimm to NBC’s new #ReadwithJenna series, digitally marketed book clubs are creating instant bestsellers and long library waitlists.
The Whisper Network is the 26th book to be featured in Witherspoon’s digital book club, each marked by Witherspoon’s yellow stamp of approval, and the 19th of which to be a New York Times bestseller. Set in corporate Dallas, the thriller dives fearlessly into the #MeToo era and opens with the ominous one-line prologue, “If only you’d listened to us, none of this would have happened.”
The novel’s three protagonists – Grace, Ardie and Sloane – have worked together for years but the sudden death of their boss and the potential promotion of a notorious coworker spurs them to stop relying on their internal “whisper networks” and face the question, is it a woman’s duty to protect other women from bad men? And then a murder complicates everything.
Baker, who lives in Austin and has previously only written for young adults, felt compelled to write after countless conversations with friends as the #MeToo movement exploded in the fall of 2017 and continued to gain momentum in 2018.
“It seemed like such a present part of my life,” Baker says. “And…while we have everyone’s attention finally about the #MeToo movement we wanted to tell people about all these other things women are dealing with in the workplace.”
From postpartum depression and pumping at work to sexism and secret parenting, Baker tackles a breadth of issues facing women in the workplace wrapped in a juicy murder mystery. A common reaction she saw from men while researching was, ‘Is it really that bad?’ Her book responds with a resounding yes. Reality and fiction are blurred as the characters grapple with scenarios of harassment that are all too real. Baker’s characters ask the same questions women around the country have been asking and continue to wrestle with: Will anyone believe me? Was it actually my fault? What if that’s not my experience with him? Is it really that bad?
When the New Yorker and The New York Times exposed Harvey Weinstein, actresses like Meryl Streep were instantly vilified for having supposedly known about his behavior and not said anything. On the opposing end, not all the women at NBC were sexually harassed by Matt Lauer and were left to wrestle with the implications of his double life. While the Whisper Network is reminiscent of these splashy headlines, it is also made up of countless stories of everyday women who confided in Baker.
“I feel like I’ve become my own little human whisper network,” Baker says. “For better or worse, I’m the person everyone tells their stories to now.”
While women across America will see themselves and their friends in the book, Texan women in particular will feel at home in the Dallas setting. Instead of setting her story in New York or London, Baker purposefully chose Texas to explore how her protagonists are products of their environment.
“I think Southern women have such an interesting way of handling things because you can kind of use your Southernly woman wiles to say things that are rather pointed in this nice, non-confrontational way and get away with it and I think that’s such a powerful thing,” Baker says. “… But at the same time I think we are also often doing that so as not to make others uncomfortable…and that can also be a disadvantage when someone may need to be made more uncomfortable.”
While slow to build, the Whisper Network gains momentum with each secret spilled and plot twist revealed, culminating in a dramatic finish. The final pages deliver the satisfying conclusion readers want but simultaneously ends heavy, for while the fictional world of harassment and fear ends on the last page, the reader is sent back out into her own. A weighty look at our culture, Baker’s work is a witness to its evils and a rallying call for a better future.
“I just tried to tell myself the problem isn’t in being the one who says that it’s happening, it’s that it’s happening,” she says.
Baker has checked off New York Times bestseller and Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club on her bucket list, but she’s already on to the next milestone, planning her first overseas book event. But she’s trying to remind herself to soak in the moment, too, because it’s not every day you get an Instagram notification from Reese Witherspoon.