Maria Semple is a sponge. In her novels, she squeezes out the cultural moment in insightful and funny ways.
You could complain that Semple’s new novel lacks the edgy energy of her debut, “This One Is Mine,” in which a bored housewife/former TV writer strays outside her marriage with a recovering junkie. Or that it’s missing the antic angst of her second novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” in which a tortured genius/architect mother with agoraphobia disappears before a family trip to Antarctica.
But if the stakes seem lower in “Today Will Be Different,” the humor, deft plotting and fresh and witty writing that trademark Semple’s fiction will win you over. And “Today Will Be Different” has a more — pardon the shopworn adjective — relatable grown-up female character than the other two.
Eleanor Flood is distracted and quirky, but she is devoted to both her husband, Joe, a hand surgeon to the Seattle Seahawks, and her open and chatty third-grade son, Timby. In a novel that takes place in the space of one day, Eleanor delivers an opening soliloquy that ends: “Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being. Today will be different.”
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Like the bestselling “Bernadette,” which consisted largely of false documents, this novel has a revealing inserted graphic memoir and an annotated poem and some random drawings. The collage-like structure reflects our cut-and-paste culture.
Ever-earnest Eleanor regularly meets with a poet at a coffee shop to parse poems she has memorized beforehand; thus, the annotated poem: Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.” And she really does intend to pay more attention to her son, Timby, be more intimate with her husband, Joe, and dress “in proper clothes, and change into yoga clothes only for yoga, which today I will actually attend,” as she states in her “Today will be different” mantra.
Her tutorial with the affable poet is cut short by a call from Timby’s private school that her son is sick. Feeling skeptical, Eleanor picks up Timby at Galer Street School and delivers him to the doctor. The pediatrician observes that sometimes frequent tummy aches equal emotional upsets, and Timby spills the beans that he is being bullied by a girl at school.
Eleanor’s myopia about her 8-year-old son and his gender identity — he likes to wear make-up — extends to her husband. She divides humanity into Competent Travelers or Helpless Travelers. With straight-ahead, clear-eyed Joe at her side, Eleanor has slipped into the Helpless Traveler role.
Now Eleanor, the former head animator of a hit TV series turned freelancer, is stuck.
The day in which she comes unglued and unstuck, Eleanor visits her husband’s office, hoping for his calming influence, only to discover that he has told the staff he is on vacation. Suspecting an affair, Eleanor takes off on a screwball chase, with Timby in tow, only to discover her husband’s secret is not so much sexy as spiritual.
If fiction’s challenge is to help you develop empathy for others, Eleanor’s task is to understand her husband’s sudden transformation.
Semple’s third novel is leaner than her first two, but still weighted with cultural signposts and brand names. In fact, even for a plugged-in, curious reader, the signposts are overdone.
At novel’s end, Eleanor’s soliloquy widens its view, and this time when she proclaims that “Today will be different,” you believe her.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book reviewer living in Topeka.
“Today Will Be Different,” by Maria Semple (259 pages; Little, Brown and Company; $27)