“But you have a vision. You put a frame around it. You sign your name anyway. That’s the risk. That’s the leap.” – Maria Semple, Today Will Be Different
People don’t want to hear your opinion, a comedian said, they want to hear their own thoughts repeated back in your voice. Maybe that’s why I love Maria Semple’s book, “Today Will be Different.” She puts so eloquently many ideas that haven’t quite coalesced in my mind, and presents other thoughts I’ve actually had, more eloquently than I managed. Nearly every page has something I identify with, wish I had put so finely, or simply makes me laugh.
This works best through the first person narration of our protagonist, Eleanor Flood. The chapters told in old school third person don’t connect with me quite so personally, which is more of a statement about the different power of narrative points of view than a critique of the content.
I don’t have much outwardly in common with Eleanor Flood, a middle aged mother dealing with a professional crisis, spiritual crisis, and marital crisis, all in one day. But underneath the superficial details, and beyond the narrator’s antics, Semple writes about a kind of spiritual struggle with isolation, worthiness, longing, and simple incomprehension of the universe, that is very easy for me to connect with.
“Today Will Be Different” called to me from my nightstand regularly for about a week, before I dragged it to a coffee shop and finished it all in one heavily caffeinated sprint. I enjoyed following Eleanor’s hectic day solving a domestic mystery (with self-conscious paranoia akin to that which vexes me), facing estrangement and longing (not unfamiliar), and aspiring to, once again in her career, be more than the sum of her domestic utility—bingo!
Maybe I love her book, also, because it’s the one I just—an hour ago—finished reading…and to sustain my attention, whatever I’m currently reading must resonate meaningfully. That bar crossed, whatever book I’m currently reading (or just finished) qualifies by default for some degree of love.
But will it rise to the canon of my favorites of all time? Maybe. It’s in the top ten at the moment, though I admit to significant movement in the lower ranks.
It might just be the intoxicating joy of what I’ve just read, which is fine in and of itself…
…but this book connects on deeper levels. The plot grows from mundane suburban scenes (one unfolds inside a Costco…) to madcap scenes (…and later she’s taken down by a police dog) then swings back again, in a way that I secretly hope my ordinary days might take more exciting turns for the remarkable.
The novel excels at storycraft. The plot unfolds over a single day, if you pardon extended flashbacks. It’s easy to look at the stack of remaining pages and guess what proportion of Eleanor’s day remains, and where we are in the plot, but that’s not particularly relevant given the flashbacks and pacing. So I looked for clues to better visualize the story as she might like it to be imagined. Is it still morning? Is it afternoon? Is it rush hour now?
Right where I need her to, Semple comes through with absolutely gorgeous details that orient the story in time, such as this description of Eleanor in an outdoor park in Seattle:
“My eye was pulled up the Space Needle towering fantastically overhead, its hot white spotlights beginning to win out over the bruising sky.”
Time of day established. Mood established. Words used brilliantly.
The flashbacks that fill in what the reader needs to know about Eleanor’s background—namely, her estrangement from her sister, a plot I don’t intrinsically care about but she successfully reached me with nonetheless—are handled deftly. While the first switch from Eleanor’s narration to third person omniscient narration was a bit jarring, I quickly realized what’s up and saw the utility offered by using each voice.
The two voices—Eleanor in narrative real time, omniscient third person narrator in flashback time—helped mark where I was in Eleanor’s story…and each showed the details and perspectives that their point of view is uniquely capable of showing.
My favorite wink from the author came in the relationship of two names. Eleanor works as an illustrator and animator. Her last name is Flood. Her crowning artistic achievement, though a failure as a commercial product, is the illustrated book she made as a gift to her sister—an illustrated family history in lieu of the family photo album they never had.
Her most successful commercial project—a natural opposite to her most heartfelt and also least commercially successful project—was an animated series named “Looper Wash.”
Semple’s wink comes, I’m convinced, from those words: Flood, a deluge, and Wash, a bone-dry riverbed. It’s easy to read far too much into it from there, so suffice it to say: well done, Semple.
Love Your Fling
Someday there will be a “last book I’ve ever read.” Given the frequency that distracted drivers plough through intersections, the impending climate apocalypse, and unpredictable things like colon cancer and hunting accidents, I have no idea when my number will be up…so I may as well read and love any book like it could be my last. At the very least, I need to be strongly engaged by a book for it to earn my attention. (And keep me from wasting more time on Facebook, which does not count as any sort of book at all.)
If a book is not up to the job, well, away it goes.
“Today Will Be Different” proved up to the job.
I love the characters. I relate to the protagonist despite enormous-seeming differences. Every few chapters I find something that makes me put the book down, stare into the middle distance, and sit in awe at the way she puts familiar feelings to words.
Upon arriving at the checkout line in a Costco, for example: “A wave of misanthropy swept over me.” The rest that follows is relatable, too, but requires the scene’s context to land appropriately.
There are deliciously wrought descriptions, like, “I arrived at the gauntlet of food-sample people. They stuck to their script without deviation and avoided eye contact, America’s version of the Buckingham Palace guards. If the Buckingham Palace guards had terrible posture and filled you with existential dread.”
And there are ideas, large and small, that speak to me personally, as well as my previous work…and at that, better than, perhaps, I put them myself.
In 2011 I launched my fourth book, “Following Josh,” about the travels I undertook across Asia and a bit of Eastern Europe by train with my friend Josh. I inhabited a role Semple calls the Helpless Traveler; he rose to the complementary role of the Competent Traveler.
“There’s a phenomenon I call the Helpless Traveler. If you’re traveling with someone who’s confident, organized, and decisive you become the Helpless Traveler: “Are we there yet?” “My bags are too heavy.” “My feet are getting blisters.” “This isn’t what I ordered.” We’ve all been that person. But if the person you’re traveling with is helpless, then you become the one able to decipher train schedules, spend five hours walking on marble museum floors without complaint, order fearlessly from foreign menus, and haggle with crooked cabdrivers. Every person has it in him to be either the Competent Traveler or the Helpless Traveler. Because (my partner) is so clearheaded and sharp, I’ve been able to go through life as the Helpless Traveler. Which, now that I think about it, might not be such a good thing.”
Semple accomplishes in that paragraph, what I spent a book illustrating.
A Risk Well-Taken
Maria Semple has a vision for this book, and its portrayal of small triumphs over fears of insufficiency, and over doubts in many forms. She puts a frame around the insights and little truths she packs into a made up tale about real struggles. She put her name to that story, and took the risk of it not landing right with the reader; of it exposing her thoughts and perspectives and fears and little salvations, to the judgment of strangers. (Many Amazon reviewers didn’t get it. I understand why. And I also disagree with them.)
That’s a big risk. It’s a big leap.
She took it…
…and it landed perfectly.
Find “Today Will Be Different” by Maria Semple on Amazon here.