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