Blog Catch-Up: Maria Semple’s “Today Will Be Different”

today-will-be-different-thumbnail_finalapproved_semple_todaywillbedifferent_revisemjp_1I am behind on book blogging!

It has been a chaotic week. After voting early I  worried all week that coloring outside the lines on a rectangle would break the scanner. I tried to hand-wash sweaters and gave up and threw them in the wash. I made a chicken noodle casserole which exploded in the knapsack while I was biking it over to a sick friend.  And I am typing the manuscript of a novel into my computer for NANOWRIMO (National November Writing Month), but, you know, it’s easier to write in a notebook.

But here’s good news:   I read and loved Maria Semple’s  Today Will be Different.

Being the cynic I am, I had very low expectations of thus well-reviewed novel.  Her last novel,  Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,  nominated for the Bailey Women’s Prize in 2013, was enjoyable but very slight

Perhaps Today Will Be Different is Semple’s breakout novel.  It has more depth, the structure is more intricate,  and it is slightly reminiscent of Barbara Trapido’s witty, charming novels,.

Narrated mostly in the first person, partly in the third person, and partly in an elliptical graphic memoir, it is witty, brilliant, alternately grumpy and effervescent.  The heroine, Eleanor Flood, a former  director of animation on a cartoon show in New York, is too sharp and introspective to fit in seamlessly as a Seattle housewife and stay-at-home mom. In laid-back, quirky, politically correct Seattle, she is neither the perfect wife to Joe, a hand surgeon, nor the perfect mother to eight-year-old Timby, and she never works on the graphic memoir she has a contract for.  But she tries to set simple goals:  she resolves to be more attentive and caring for one day.  She will play a game with Timby. She will initiate sex with Joe.

Semple’s own background is in TV, and it shows, especially in the dialogue:   the narrative is minimalist and the witty dialogue abbreviated but snappy.  Gradually Semple expands the story to reveal the stress as well as the humor of  Eleanor’s scrambled, tiring life. Eleanor glimpsed Joe with his head down on the breakfast table, and worries about what it means.  Timby puts on makeup in the car and runs out before she can stop him.  (She knows the principal of the expensive private school thinks Timby is “genderquerer.’) The one thing Eleanor lives for is poetry class, where she recites and discusses ONE poem a week at a coffeehouse with a poet. This also fits in with her past:  she relates it to her mother.

I got the big idea to sharpen my instrument by memorizing poems.  My mother was an actress; she used to recite Shakespeare soliloquies before bed.  It was amazing.  (There! Amazing! If my brain weren’t so bad I might have said, It was proof she was disciplined and properly educated and may have had an inkling of her terrible fate.)  So I did what anyone would do: I picked up the phone, called the University of Washington, and asked for their finest poetry teacher.

Naturally, during their discussion of Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” the school calls.  Timby is sick.  Eleanor doesn’t believe it for a minute–it has been happening a lot lately–but she interrupts the lesson to pick him up.  And Timby isn’t exactly sick.  The new girl has called him the “c” word:  cow.

When Timby overhears an artist at lunch saying he met Eleanor’s sister, Eleanor flips and denies it.  We are introduced to Eleanor and her younger sister Ivy in the elliptical graphic memoir, The Flood Girls.  Their actress mother dies of cancer, and then their alcoholic father moves them to a guesthouse in Aspen and pretty much disappear.  Mostly he is out drinking and doing deals, leaving Eleanor, a fourth-grader, to raise her little sister.For weeks they have to eat whatever they can buy in the drugstore.   Eleanor turned out tough; Ivy wispy and sad, a fashion model who became a trophy wife for a mad Louisiana rich man.

When Eleanor and Timby learn that Joe has gone rogue from his office–he told his secretary they were on vacation for a week–Timby, Alonzo the poet, and Eleanor go in search.  They do not find what they expect.

During this wild day, Eleanor learns about Joe, Timby, her poet Alonzo, and a former colleague she fired who is now a successful artist.  Life is not so much about being different as about finding out what the hell is going on.

And isn’t this how we feel in life?

Love this book!

Summer Bookishness, # 1: Attempting to Buy a Baileys Women Prize Book & Reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

A Woman Reading in the Woods, 1959 (LIfe)

A Woman Reading in the Woods, 1959 (LIfe magazine)

I love everything about summer:  the heat, the humidity, the iced tea, the air-conditioning, the iced tea, and did I say the iced tea?

My mother had strong views about summer.  She believed drinking unsweetened iced tea with lemon had “health benefits.”  She liked to chat about the antioxidants in tea.   She also believed women over 30 should never wear shorts. After menopause, I disappeared as a woman anyway.  I am “beyond gender,” as I say.  So I wore shorts on my bike ride to the bookstore (I do wish I had culottes)  to buy a copy of Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize.

It was a lovely ride, but very hot.

Naturally I found lots of books, but not the one I was looking for.

Well, there’s always the e-book.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?  Maria Semple 13526165Since I had the urge to read a Bailey Women’s Prize-related book, I went home and started Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which made the longlist last year

It is feather-light and charming, in the manner of Nina Stibbe’s Man at the Helm.  Comedies seldom make the prize longlists, and, 100 pages into it, this has the lightness of a successful Y.A. crossover novel.  The narrator, Bee, tells us on the first page  that her mother Bernadette disappeared before their Christmas vacation to Antarctica (a reward for Bee’s straight A’s in eighth grade).  Bee’s narrative is mixed with emails (several from a psychotic neighbor), school reports, letters from the school, her father’s letter to a psychiatrist about Bernadette, and most touchingly, Bernadette’s lonely, personal emails to an administrative assistant she hires through a large company in India to pay her bills and shop for her.

Bernadette may or may not be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  When Microsoft bought her husband’s computer animation company, he was ambivalent about moving to Seattle: it was Bernadette, an award-winning architect, who insisted that they leave L.A.   We learn from her husband that in 18 years Bernadette hasn’t made a friend.  (From the emails of the other moms at school, we see why.)  Their house, a former reform school, is going to seed in a very Gothic way:  not only does the roof leak, but plants actually grow up through the floor.

But Bernadette is a good mother, and is extremely solicitous about  Bee, who had three open heart surgeries before kindergarten and has asthma.

Bernadette doesn’t want to leave the house, but she feels she has to go to Antarctica, which is Bee’s dream.  Bernadette writes to her assistant,

Of the million reasons I don’t want to go to Antarctica, the main one is that it will require me to leave the house.  You might have figured out by now that’s something I don’t much like to do. But I can’t argue with Bee.  She’s a good kid.  She has more character than Elgie and I and the next ten kids combined.  Plus she’s applying to boarding school for next fall, which she’ll of course get into because of said A’s….So it would be in pretty bad taste to deny Buzzy this.

Is Bernadette having a  breakdown?  Or is it something deeper?

This feels very much like Summer Reading.  Like Nick Hornby, Semple has written for films (well, in her case, TV) and I wonder if that affects the brevity of the narrative and the voice.

Still, I am happy to read a collection of emails.  They are, by the way, much longer than the typical email.