Maria Semple understands women on the verge – she just likes to have a little fun at their (our?) expense. She’s empathetic, sure, but as a former television writer (“Arrested Development,” among other shows) with a formidable sense of humor, she can’t help but reflect sardonically on bad decisions, questionable behavior, neurotic lapses and self-sabotage.
In her first book, “This One Is Mine,” a TV writer-turned-stay-at-home mom with an enviably luxurious life tries to throw away her comfortable existence for an unsuitable (and not terribly successful) rocker. In her second novel, the breakthrough “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” a tightly wound architect disappears, sending her teenage daughter on a mission to find her (Richard Linklater of “Boyhood” fame is set to direct a film version).
Both novels are funny, sharp and satiric, skewering insular worlds (Hollywood in “This One Is Mine,” urban Seattle in “Bernadette”) and offering wry commentary on middle-class notions of selfhood and reinvention. “Bernadette” in particular struck a nerve with readers and critics (the Miami Herald named it one of the best books of 2012, and so it was).
For Semple fans, the wait for the next comic gem has felt longer than four years. But now that she’s back with a quick punch to the funny bone, all is forgiven. In “Today Will Be Different,” she dives into familiar territory with her usual sly wit, delivering another story of a woman trying – and mostly failing – to put her life in order.
From the start, Semple sets the tone, echoing the complaints of busy, distracted people everywhere via Eleanor Flood, animator of the cult show “Looper Wash,” wife, mother, deadline-annihilating graphic novelist, estranged sister. “Today will be different,” Eleanor vows. “Today I will be present. Today, anyone I’m speaking to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply.” Her ambitious list continues: She’ll make time to play a game with her son, Timby; she’ll initiate sex with her husband, Joe. She will wear yoga pants only for yoga, “which today I will actually attend.”
Most importantly, she will achieve serenity. “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.”
Naturally, the day brings no calm or ease. First, Eleanor catches her solid, reliable husband Joe face down on the dining room table, looking defeated. Why? He doesn’t say. Then her son Timby – named after an autocorrected text – fakes being sick at school to escape a mean girl. A colleague from her past appears and dredges up painful and embarrassing memories. Most baffling of all, she discovers that Joe has closed his office for two weeks, telling his subordinates he’s on vacation – but not telling Eleanor.
Semple, who will appear at Miami Book Fair in November, gets that Eleanor’s problems are not monumental yet still overwhelming: In these times of too much distraction, even an existential crisis can drive you mad. “Today Will Be Different” never takes itself too seriously, and while some of Eleanor’s issues are unique – see the wonderful, enigmatic graphic novel nestled within the book, illustrated by Eric Chase Anderson – we’ve all been in her shoes at some point, desperate to change and flailing around in lives we think don’t fit us, even when they do.
As she did so savagely in “Bernadette,” Semple has a great deal of fun mocking Seattle (where pedestrians are slavishly obedient to “don’t walk” signs) and modern parenting. “Piper’s family was fresh from a year-long trip around the world,” Eleanor says of Timby’s tormentor. “Is this not a rarefied but most annoying trend? Families traveling around the world to unplug and immerse themselves in foreign cultures, then frantically emailing you to please post comments on their kids’ blogs so they won’t think nobody gives a hoot?”
Is the new book as good as “Bernadette”? Maybe not – that’s an impossibly high bar. But “Today Will Be Different” is brisk, amusing and engaging, and Semple is a champion observer of the human condition. We’re lucky we have her to make us laugh about it.
Today Will Be Different
- Author: Maria Semple
- Little, Brown (336 pages, $27)