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October 17, 2016

Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple

today-will-be-differentThe first time I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple, was the night after Iris was born via c-section, when I was immobile and yet expected to breastfeed my squalling baby off and on throughout the night (and many nights after…). Not exactly the best of times but it turned out to be the best of books, so much so that every time the baby woke, I was excited to pick up the novel again. It made for splendid reading. Bernadette was smart, funny, clever, breezy, dark, light, and I have  always been a little sorry it ended. I’ve never completely gotten over this book.

I read Semple’s first novel, This One is Mine, not longer after, hungry for more of the goodness. It was not as good as Bernadette but had the same something. The same understanding that smart books need not be serious, and humour and situations surely born from their author’s experience writing for television. The same slightly neurotic, irresistible (if you’re a certain kind of reader) point of view. Awhile after that, I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette? again, because I wanted to and also because I wanted to see if it was as wonderful as I remembered/if perhaps I’d been influenced by being on drugs in my adoration of it. It was/I wasn’t.

And so I’ve been waiting more than three years to read Maria Semple again, a situation that brings with it enormous expectations, and I am very pleased to say that Today Will Be Different didn’t disappoint. And nor was it like anything I’d expected. I did a Q&A with Marissa Stapley last week at 49thShelf.com, and she noted that readers and critics of commercial fiction need to take notice of when its writers are taking risks with their work, and celebrate those risks. Here is a book that defies categorization, that pushes the limits of fiction and its tools (and how—the novel contains a mini graphic memoir, among other paraphernalia). Structurally, it’s a fascinating book…why is why I was totally annoyed last week when I listened to an interview with Semple and the interviewer refused to talk about the book outside the realms of autobiography.

It’s true that writers like Semple do make it easy for critics to fall into the trap of conflating author and narrator. It’s true too that very often the two are properly conflated. But when we view our fiction (and our fiction by women in particular) through such a narrow lens, we limit ourselves as to what fiction is all about and missing the chance to talk about women as artists and creators instead of giant sacks of feelings and experience (and after all, what then is memoir for?).

The way that Semple mines her experience and the world around her is interesting. There. There’s a start. Also the way she blurs fact and fiction even in her form, by including extra textual documentation and creating cultural reference points in vivid detail. Today We Will Be Different differs remarkably from Bernadette in its first person narration—while Bernadette was an enigma, we know exactly where Eleanor Flood is, and the reader is stuck right inside her head. Which is a little hard to take at times, and why this is the case is a worthwhile question and makes me thing of demonstrable evidence that people prefer the sound of a male voice to a female one. It’s also a matter of Eleanor’s idiosyncrasies, her digressions and preoccupations, and bluntness—she actively maintains a list of subjects she proactively chooses not to care about, diversity among them. Eleanor Flood is not dying for you to like her. And yet like her, you probably will. She even knows you will.

The book begins with the prospect of a new day, a day which (no surprise here) our protagonist becomes determined will represent a turning point away from the rut in which she has found herself stuck. “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.” An ordinary day that might make all the difference, and it does, but not for the reasons that Eleanor imagines it will. Her plans soon go off the rails: her son’s school calls requesting she pick him up as he’s suffering from a fictional stomach bug; her lunch plans (with the friend she’s spent a decade being unable to shake) are not what she bargained for; and when she shows up at her husband’s office to foist their son upon him, it turns out he’s told his staff that he’s on vacation for a week and they’re surprised that Eleanor and Timby aren’t with him. Where is he? 

There are writers who sit down and painstakingly plan their books before they start writing, a mess of post-it notes and index cards, and one gets the feeling that Maria Semple is not one of them. The plots of her books resemble those dotted lines on maps in Saturday morning cartoons in which small children navigate space with curious and often dangerous diversions. Which is kind of a funny way to plot a book, but think of the joy you once got in running your finger along that line, and also of the momentum inherent in this kind of narrative, the briskness with which the reader is brought along for the ride. It also turns out that plot isn’t really the point is, but voice is, and Eleanor Flood’s is the kind of voice that’s hard to get out of your head.

While parts of the narrative seem too brisk, a careful reader will discern clues hearkening to a deeper story, a complicated one of family and Eleanor’s sister, who is only alluded to briefly and mysterious in the novel’s first section. Why the elusiveness? Follow the urgent dotted line, and you will discover the answer, and while the novel ends in a story line that is as ridiculous as the end of Bernadette, you will just be so devastated that it’s over.

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