“Today will be different,” Eleanor Flood tells herself in the mantra that starts both her day and Maria Semple’s new novel Today Will Be Different. With her last two novels, Semple appears to have pioneered a genre all her own: the warm-hearted black comedy – all the satire, none of the viciousness.
“Today I will be present,” Eleanor goes on. (If only self-help and wish-fulfillment were synonymous.) “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. 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….”
Spoiler alert: Eleanor never makes it to yoga. Instead the novel takes her on a day-long comic tour of Seattle, which fans of Semple’s hilarious “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” will have no trouble recognizing, down to the voracious blackberry vines.
Like Semple’s last novel, “Today Will Be Different” centers around a brilliant, artistically stymied woman who is the distracted mom of an observant, wary child. Eleanor was the artistic director of the cult animated show, “Looper Wash,” before her husband, Joe, moved them to Seattle. He’s spent the past 10 years being hand surgeon to athletes and Eleanor has raised their 8-year-old son, Timby. (About Timby’s name: It was going to be Timothy, but an iPhone autocorrected it and his parents were, unfortunately, amused.)
She calls her lack of presence “The Mr. Magoo.” “The ghost-walking, the short-tempered distraction, the hurried fog. (All of this I’m just assuming, because I have no idea how I come across, my consciousness is that underground, like a toad in winter.)” Her ultimate coping mechanism is “The Trick,” so labeled by a psychiatrist who “handed me back my check and wished me luck.” (“I’ve been to nine shrinks in twenty years and I’m still like, 'Wait… what?'” Eleanor tells readers.)
The Trick, she explains, is simple – and will be familiar to many readers: “If I see you about to criticize me, I leap in and criticize myself ... so afraid of rejection that I turned every interaction into a life-or-death charm offensive.”
The Galer Street School is back, and still terrifying parents and readers with its “embrace of everything.” Seattle is still a ripe comic target. “[A] new month, a new condo higher than the last, each packed with blue-badged Amazon squids, every morning squirting by the thousands from their studio apartments onto my block, heads in devices, never looking up.” A visit to the Washington state fair gives off a doughy, “parolee vibe.” Alas, there are no trips to Antarctica this go-round.
But there is poetry. In an effort to emerge from her fog, Eleanor memorizes a poem a week. This week is “Skunk Hour,” by Robert Lowell. And embedded in the heart of the book is a 16-page graphic novel called “The Flood Girls,” drawn by Eric Chase Anderson in Eleanor’s detailed, “sherbet-colored aesthetic,” that holds the clues to a long-buried family secret. Eleanor’s distractedness stems from heartbreak, which Semple wisely doesn’t laugh off.
Eleanor’s plans for the day get derailed by Timby, who fakes a stomachache to get out of school, and Joe, who it turns out has been skipping work all week without telling Eleanor. Eleanor, with Timby commentating from the back seat, takes off by car to find out what’s going on.
Having to wedge everything into about 18 hours is tricky for anyone not named Virginia Woolf, but the Seattle plot zings along nicely.
“Today Will Be Different” slows a bit when Semple has to work in Eleanor’s memories of disastrous encounters with New Orleans’s high society at its most useless and lethally snobbish. This section understandably packs less comic punch, but also less emotional connection. A dinner party faux pas with a cachepot (apparently, something one puts things in) ultimately has less resonance than Eleanor's present-day encounter at a Costco sample table involving “breaded steak fish.”
Eleanor is such a self-deprecating and confiding presence it’s hard to imagine that she could live 10 years anywhere populated without making friends. If you’re willing to suspend disbelief that far, “Today Will Be Different” is a witty delight. And, as another, vastly different heroine once remarked, tomorrow is another day. Eleanor might make it out of those yoga clothes, after all.