Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple


I really liked this book.  I loved Where’d You Go Bernadette, and I knew a lot of people were disappointed by Semple’s new book. So I was a little afraid to read it.  It has its flaws, but it worked for me.

The book is about a day in the life of Eleanor Flood, a successful illustrator living in Seattle with her husband Joe and young son Timby.  It begins this way…

Today will be different.  Today I will be present.  Today, anyone I speak to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe.  Today I will take pride in my appearance.  I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes, and change into yoga clothes only for yoga, which today I will actually attend.  Today I won’t swear. Today I won’t talk about money.  Today there will be an ease about me.  My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile.  Today I will radiate calm.  Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local.  Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being.  Today will be different.

A wrench is thrown into these plans when Eleanor finds out her husband is pretending to go into work; his staff think he’s on vacation.  And then Eleanor runs into a former colleague who unearths a family secret.

I’m a sucker for an emotional story about siblings.  Part of the story is about the sister Eleanor may or may not have (I won’t tell you more than that).  Sister relationships really get to me, and I liked how Semple tells Eleanor’s story without getting melodramatic.  She introduces us to Eleanor’s childhood through a collection of Eleanor’s own drawings.

I think people’s main problem is that Eleanor isn’t terribly likable.  You’ve heard me say this before, but I like characters better when they’re flawed.  Eleanor isn’t a great mother, nor is she a great wife.  She’s kind of a disaster, but she cares.  Although at times, she comes off as mean to her son, which is pretty unforgivable.  But Semple gives Eleanor heart, and the way she gradually tells Eleanor’s story kept me rooting for her.

Semple seems to specialize in characters who have trouble with emotional connections, and I appreciate reading about characters like that.  There are people who seem to go through life always feeling -and responding –appropriately.  I’m not one of them, so I can identify with a character who often says the wrong thing and isn’t always nice.  Plus I love the way Semple writes.

Now, with Ivy erased, I’ve become The Trick. I’m a grotesquerie going out into the world fetching observations and encounters to perform for someone who long ago left the building.

The book jumps around a lot, and is a bit hard to follow unless you read it in one sitting.  I found that even in this short, very readable book, I had to go back to a few places and re-read.  But I’m okay with that.

As with Bernadette, there is a lot of Seattle in this story, and I like that Semple makes fun of it. Though I’ve only visited a few times, her Seattle reminds me a lot of how I saw San Francisco when I lived there.  We also revisit the Galen School, and I really like the digs at mom culture (I can’t say any of these things, not being a mom).  These things seem clearly rooted in Semple’s own life.

For me, Semple’s weakness is her reliance on slapstick-y antics to move the story, which are not terribly necessary and can be distracting.  For example, at one point Eleanor runs headfirst into a sculpture, and another time drops her keys accidentally into a locked charity collection box.  The first incident was just confusing, and the second I saw coming.  I found Eleanor perfectly human based on her everyday emotional struggles. But Semple comes from TV-writing, and you can see that in her books.

But like Bernadette, I found this book surprisingly moving.  The ending felt a bit abrupt but I liked the way the book came together, and I really liked Eleanor.  I may not recommend this book to everyone the way I did Bernadette, but I really enjoyed it.  In fact when I put it down I could have happily started reading it over again.

According to Semple’s website, plans are in the works to make a TV show starring Julia Roberts as Eleanor.  I think this could work well as a show; this book only spans a day in Eleanor’s life and I definitely want to know what happens next.

2 Responses to “Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple”

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