A review of Maria Semple’s (“Where’d You Go, Bernadette”) new novel, also Seattle-set but taking place in just one day, “filled with chance encounters, unexpected complications, everyday annoyances and sly observations.”
‘Today Will Be Different’
by Maria Semple
Little, Brown (259 pp., $27)
Lying in bed this morning, I had set the bar laughably low: look people in the eye, get dressed, smile! It should have been a Sunday drive. Then that prankster Reality appeared in the pickup truck ahead of me and started tossing watermelons out the back. And it wasn’t even one o’clock!
We’ve all had days like Eleanor Flood’s. A 50-ish woman with a husband, a child, a dog, a career as an artist/animator and a life lived in a “constant low-grade state of confusion,” she is the frazzled heroine of Maria Semple’s zippy roller coaster of a novel, “Today Will Be Different.” You jump on in the beginning, as Eleanor starts an already overcommitted and overly complicated day; the ride ends, as so many do, in the same place it began, but with the view looking just a bit different. The reader disembarks with a happy sigh; ready to ride again.
Like Semple’s previous novel, the epistolary satire “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” “Today Will Be Different” is a very Seattle tale: Semple, a former television writer/producer who moved here eight years ago, eyes the city with a comedian’s timing. (“Seattle,” notes Eleanor, watching a group of people obediently waiting for a “Walk” sign even though no cars are approaching. “I’ve never seen a city of pedestrians less invested in crossing the street.”)
But where “Bernadette,” despite the Space-Needle-sharp brilliance of its wit, faltered just a bit in its third act, “Today Will Be Different” starts off as a funny, rant-y novel and becomes, by its end, an unexpectedly heartfelt exploration of a woman’s inner life. (And yes, it’s still funny.) Eleanor, her shrink was told her, is “so afraid of rejection that I turned every interaction into a life-or-death charm offensive.” That’s what this narrator is doing — showing off, performing — but as the day goes on, Eleanor’s guard drops just a bit. We learn a secret, one that she’s never even told her adored son; we witness a sea change in Eleanor’s marriage; and we learn that this woman, for all her sardonic wisecracking, never gives up on love.
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Semple wraps all of this in a multilayered narrative that takes us from Eleanor’s first-person present to her past — she falls and hits her head, losing consciousness and flipping backward in time. (This section uses a third-person narrator, as if Eleanor’s watching it replay, rather than experiencing it.) Appropriately for a novel about a graphic artist, at one point the narration falls away, with a whimsically colored series of drawings telling us what words can’t.
And, as all everywomen should, Eleanor has an irresistible sidekick for much of her wanderings: her grade-school-age son, Timby, who’s as quirky as his mother but sweeter in nature, and who brings out a softness in her. Spotting her son, in a moment (one of many) of frustration, she’s suddenly struck by “Timby with his pinch pots and darling belly and paper airplanes and backward Ys and his love of winter and carbs and walking sticks and his scavenging for clues to help him better understand the screwy adult world.”
“Today Will Be Different” lives in and makes sense of that world; it’s a life lived in a day, filled with chance encounters, unexpected complications, everyday annoyances and sly observations. (The food-sample people at Costco are America’s version of the Buckingham Palace guards, Eleanor tells us, “if the Buckingham Palace guards had terrible posture and filled you with existential dread.”) Tomorrow, perhaps, Eleanor will have a perfect day, and present her best self to everyone she meets. Tomorrow, perhaps, so will we.