It is decreed, writ large, immutable: today will be different. It has to be. But was yesterday really so bad? Theoretically Eleanor has it all — the adoring, dependable husband, the winsome child, the apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows providing a “cartoonish panorama of Seattle”. Fans of Maria Semple’s two previous novels, including 2012’s critically acclaimed Where’d You Go, Bernadette will recognise this latest anti-heroine — a woman acutely aware of the albatross that her privilege has become, the “painfully small scale” of her existence.
Fittingly, the story takes place over the course of a single day in which Eleanor, our misanthropic narrator, has one goal: to become her best self. Of course, with Semple — also a comic screenwriter — at the helm, these best-laid plans collapse as quickly as they’re made. Eleanor’s husband Joe, a successful hand surgeon to the stars, isn’t at work and has lied about taking a week off. Where is he? Her bullied eight-year-old Timby (“I was named by an iPhone”) feels sick and needs to be collected from school, necessitating his presence at a lunch date with Eleanor’s old colleague who asks, innocently enough, after her estranged sister Ivy. Stricken by this painful remembrance, she gallops off in search of Joe, a hapless Timby in her wake, and leaves the dog at the supermarket. Today is indeed different, but not perhaps in the way she’d anticipated.
Readers of Semple’s work are encouraged to dislike her protagonists, ostensibly for comic value, and there are some glorious moments of social satire. One friend is described as “steady, earnest, without a speck of humour, and talked . . . very slowly . . . as . . . if . . . her . . . platitudes . . . were . . . little . . . gold . . . coins.” In one gruelling social encounter, Eleanor’s “fingers curled like fortune-telling fish”, while a boorish rich man she once knew reminds her of “how papayas swelled during the rainy season”.
This waspish selfishness is a clever mask, but Semple has a knack of teasing out the warmth behind it. Spliced between the cripplingly self-aware narrative passages come pleasantly unpredictable flashbacks in the third person, as though she does not trust herself to report with objectivity. We see Eleanor’s tenderness for Ivy and the book of 12 illustrations (included, and drawn by Eric Chase Anderson, brother of Wes) created as a memento of their childhood, now tragically gathering dust in the cupboard. The days after her mother’s death were a “numb jumble”, the children left to fend for themselves: such contextual sketches give Eleanor dimension and back-story.
Semple avoids patronising readers by providing a simple answer to Eleanor’s problems. The climax is surprisingly unthinkable, but as optimistic and tentatively hopeful as its title suggests.
Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple, Weidenfeld & Nicolson RRP£11.99/$14.99, 288 pages