In 2012, author Maria Semple asked the question
Where'd You Go, Bernadette? then answered it in her splendidly manic and madcap second novel. Now she's back Semple, that is with Today Will Be Different, another wickedly sharp and funny book. This time Semple gives us Eleanor Flood, an unwilling member of that vast tribe of career women who "lost track of time and madly scrambled to get pregnant." No slouch in the overachieving department, Eleanor fell in love, got married, and had a baby. Solidly on the mommy track, she's now a housewife to Joe, a genial and gifted hand surgeon who has suddenly become a rock star in his field. She's also the stay-at- home mom of their gender-bending eight-year-old son, Timby, whose name came from an iPhone spellcheck malfunction. To scale this domestic pinnacle Eleanor had to leave behind her former life as the animation director and creative force behind Looper Wash, a snarky hit TV show. With growing alarm, Eleanor realizes she has "joined the epidemic of haggard women in their forties trapped in playgrounds . . . donning maternity jeans two years after giving birth and sporting skunk stripes down the middle of their heads while they pushed swings. (Who needed to look good any more? We got the kid!)" This is not a good thing. Stunned by the rigors of birth and motherhood, Eleanor now pinballs her way through the small calamities of daily life. Thanks to Joe's skyrocketing career, she has been uprooted from her beloved New York City and transplanted into the upscale ethers of Seattle. There, from a perch of light-filled condo, she's flailing and failing as she tackles the precise ballet of her role as helpmeet. The book, which takes place in a single day, starts with the low bar of Eleanor's aspirations. Less of a to-do list than a plea for clemency, the agenda includes the resolution to take a shower, dress in real (not yoga) clothes, play a board game with her son, initiate sex with Joe, not swear, and, throughout it all, to radiate calm. It's a full-throated retreat from what Eleanor does excel at these days, which is to ferociously, and with great precision, lampoon the precious, rarified world she now inhabits. Will things go wonderfully and wackily wrong? Oh yes. The moment Timby fakes a stomach ache to get out of school it's the same ridiculous and "ruinously expensive" Galer Street School from Where'd You Go Bernadette?, a gift that keeps on giving Eleanor's plans for the day blow up. A visit to her husband's surgical practice reveals the staff believes Joe and his family are away on a week's vacation. Considering that just that morning Joe pretended that he was leaving for work, this is cause for alarm. A lunch Eleanor is dreading with a "friend" she loathes ("Sydney Madison is the human equivalent of 'Tinnitus Today' ") turns out instead to be a meeting with a former Looper Wash employee, one whom Eleanor treated shabbily and then fired. And instead of calling to nudge Eleanor about the graphic memoir she is late in delivering, the editor is delivering very different news. With Timby as her wisecracking wingman throughout a day that lurches increasingly out of control, Eleanor reels as a series of dark secrets are exposed. One of these, centered on Eleanor's family, is meant to be the emotional heart of the story. But it's told in a series of flashbacks, and the characters don't quite catch hold. Though the details are by turns hilarious and heartrending, the ultimate reveal, as with the secret of Joe's whereabouts, lands with a bit of a thud. Semple was an award-winning TV writer before she turned to novels. (Her father both wrote the pilot for and set the cartoony visual style of the 1960s TV series Batman.) The DNA of Semple's résumé, which includes Arrested Development and Mad About You, is threaded throughout her literary work. So too is the tight plotting needed to successfully launch and land a sitcom in the twenty-two minutes left to the writers once advertisers have had their say. Here, with the vast (and commercial-free!) landscape of a novel to play with, Semple packs the pages with laugh-out-loud scenes, dark story arcs, and tiny moments of tenderness. She's generous both to her heroine and to her readers. Near the middle of the book, before Eleanor knows whether her marriage is saved or lost, she pictures the family photos that line her condo walls. That’s where Semple gives Eleanor, and her readers, the best gift, something approaching wisdom. "This was happiness. Not the framed greatest hits, but the moments between. At the time I hadn’t pegged them as being particularly happy. But now, looking back at those phantom snapshots, I’m struck by my calm, my ease, the evident comfort of my life. I’m happy in retrospect." Not another killer quip or delightful quirk but the ultimate kindness, a road map to chart escape from Eleanor's desperate ennui one just as useful, perhaps, to anyone who finds herself waking up and making the vow in Semple’s title. Veronique de Turenne is a Los Angeles–based journalist, essayist, and playwright. Her literary criticism appears on NPR and in major American newspapers. One of the highlights of her career was interviewing Vin Scully in his broadcast booth at Dodger Stadium, then receiving a handwritten thank-you note from him a few days later.
Reviewer: Veronique de Turenne
The Barnes & Noble Review
[Semple's] new book,
Today Will Be Different, can be outrageously funny. But it cuts closer to the bone than Where'd You Go, Bernadette did, and its main character's problems feel more real. This time Ms. Semple delivers less satire and more soul…Ms. Semple is an immensely appealing writer, and there's something universal in her heroine's efforts to get a handle on a life spinning out of control. We may not all have long-lost sisters who live in the most crazily status-obsessed corners of the South, but we surely know what she means about waking up each dawn with new resolve that melts by midmorning. The Sisyphean poignancy to this book gives it a heft that Bernadette lacked, even if it's also rougher around the edges.
The New York Times - Janet Maslin
…funny, smart, emotionally reverberant…The success of this poetic, seriously funny and brainy dream of a novel"Mrs. Dalloway Takes Laughing Gas," perhapshas to do with Maria Semple's range of riffs and preoccupations. All kinds of details, painful and perverse and deeply droll, cling to her heroine and are appraised and examined and skewered and simply wondered at. If that's considered a trick, readers of Semple's novel will be overjoyed to fall for it.
The New York Times Book Review - Meg Wolitzer
On the fateful day she decides to be her “best self,” Eleanor Flood—cult-famous cartoonist, mother, wife, cynic—spirals from one catastrophe to the next. Her day quickly turns hectic when her son, Timby, comes home sick from school. Hoping his father might help, Eleanor instead begins to suspect her surgeon husband is having an affair when his receptionist acts cagey. Eleanor’s ego is bruised when she realizes an underling she fired years ago is now a famous artist, she dodges calls from her publisher about a long-passed deadline for her graphic memoir, and, finally, she suffers what may be a concussion after crashing headfirst into a sculpture. The latest from Semple (Where’d You Go, Bernadette?) is a sharp, funny read, and the author injects quirky elements—drawings, a comic book, photocopies of poems—to add another layer of enjoyment. Though Eleanor is snarky, her troubles and growing calamities are engaging. Some of her encounters are a bit too convenient, and the trope of a “day from hell” makes for shallow interactions between characters, but Semple augments these first-person antics with third-person sections that dig deep into Eleanor’s past, finding particular resonance when telling the story of Ivy, the sister Eleanor feels she has lost to a wealthy husband in New Orleans. In the end, the novel wraps up too neatly, but the ride is consistently entertaining. Agent: Anna Stein, ICM Partners. (Oct.)
"With her keen eye for detail and a razor-sharp, snark-tinged wit, Semple is becoming one of our great writers about place."
Andrew Travers, Aspen Times "Semple has created a depressed, mean-spirited, forgetful, self-centered, scatterbrained and sometimes unlikable main character that you can't help but fall in love with" Denver Post "an irresistibly funny portrait of a woman who refuses to give up on love" Moira McDonald, Seattle Times
Narrated by irreverent Eleanor Flood, a self-described "past her prime animator" who achieved fleeting fame, Semple's latest novel following the best-selling Where'd You Go, Bernadette features the author's trademark satire. After relocating from New York to Seattle, Eleanor's erratic life consists of shuttling son Timby, lunches with friends she can't stand, poetry lessons with tutor Alonzo, and thinking about revitalizing her marriage to Joe. That is, until an old friend mentions Eleanor's estranged sister, Ivy. Interweaving chapters provide flashbacks to Eleanor and Ivy's difficult childhood after the death of their mother and years with an emotionally distant, alcoholic father. Semple acutely captures the complexities of sibling relationships when describing Ivy's hurried marriage to overbearing scion Bucky Willett, the series of events that led to the sisters' estrangement, and their failed efforts to reconnect. Present-day chapters focus on Timby faking his way out of school and Joe's unexplained absences at work, causing Eleanor's paranoia and insecurities to get the best of her. VERDICT An introspective look, both comedic and tragic, at attempting to be the best one can be: wife, mother, or sibling. While not as laugh-out-loud funny as Where'd You Go, this book will satisfy fans of Semple and satire. [See Prepub Alert, 4/18/16.]—Stephanie Sendaula, Library Journal
A day in the life of an enchanting and gifted woman who is almost too frazzled to go on.The women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the mad housewives, and the Annie Halls can welcome a new member to their club: Eleanor Flood, the narrator of Semple's (Where'd You Go Bernadette, 2012, etc.) second sendup of Seattle and its denizens. Eleanor, formerly a New Yorker and the animator of a popular cartoon about four girls in " '60's style pinafores" misdirecting "their unconscious fear of puberty into a random hatred of hippies, owners of pure-bred dogs and babies named Steve," lives in Seattle with her sweet Seahawks doctor husband and her precocious, makeup-wearing third-grade son. Timby goes to Galer Street School, an ultra-PC environ familiar to Bernadette fans, where Eleanor imagines his arrival was greeted with delighted cries of "Eureka! We've got a transgender!" This book is so packed with interesting characters and situations, it could have been three times as long. You want more New Orleans Garden District (where Eleanor's sister has been kidnapped by an effete Mardi Gras krewe captain), more New York animation studio, more poignant childhood stories (dead actress mother and alcoholic father, illustrated in a beautiful color insert), more annotated poems ("Skunk Hour," by Robert Lowell). Only one thing you don't want more of—a weird plotline about husband Joe's secret life. As Eleanor tells Timby when they visit a public art installation, "I don't mean to ruin the ending for you, sweet child, but life is one long headwind. To make any kind of impact requires self-will bordering on madness. The world will be hostile, it will be suspicious of your intent, it will misinterpret you, it will pack you with doubt, it will flatter you into self-sabotage—My God, I'm making it sound so glamorous and personal! What the world is, more than anything? It's indifferent." Ah, Eleanor. You could have stopped at glamorous and personal. Because few will be indifferent to this achingly funny and very dear book. This author is on her way to becoming a national treasure.