Today Will Be Different: A Novel
Hardback: Little, Brown and Co., 2016
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Reviewed by Abram Kielsmeier-Jones
Eleanor Flood’s day is about to be different—but not in the proactive way she had committed to. Today she wants to be her “best self,” because “the other way wasn’t working” (7).
A writer and illustrator, Eleanor lives in Seattle with her eight-year-old son Timby (Timby?), a forgotten and forgettable dog Yo-Yo, and her husband Joe, well-loved hand surgeon to the Seattle Seahawks.
The book begins with the kind of vow busy parents will immediately identify with:
Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I speak to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. (3)
Author Maria Semple offers one reason Eleanor might have the cards stacked against her:
You know how your brain turns to mush? How it starts when you’re pregnant? You laugh, full of wonder and conspiracy, and you chide yourself, Me and my pregnancy brain! Then you give birth and your brain doesn’t return? But you’re breast-feeding, so you laugh, as if you’re a member of an exclusive club? Me and my nursing brain! But then you stop nursing and the terrible truth descends: Your good brain is never coming back. (23)
It’s a liberating paragraph—for nursing and non-nursing parents alike—but Eleanor’s self-absorption and lack of many responsibilities (her schedule: poetry lesson, yoga, lunch) make it difficult to relate. As she described her annoyance with a group of “young, glowing, physically fit moms” (31), I wanted to laugh, but instead started to lose interest, especially when she responded:
So, with a perfectly timed cough, I grabbed that young mom’s ring of keys, dropped them in my purse, and slipped out.
That’s right, I stole them. (33)
As Flood continues to ignore phone calls from her literary agent, Joyce Primm, a call joining “the boneyard of other voice mails… none I dared listen to” (38) puts the narrator further out of reach. When Eleanor attends a nearly forgotten lunch date with a previous co-worker (and her out-‘sick’- from-school son), the revelation of a past family secret loses some of its punch. “As far as I’m concerned,” she writes, “the only thing sweeter than seeing a friend is that friend canceling on me” (43). Eleanor Flood doesn’t want to see her friends; what makes the reader want to stay with her for a full day, or 200 more pages?
Besides, as much as the reader might appreciate a life-out-of-control point of comparison to feel better about his or her own life, Eleanor’s inability to remember life’s basic details requires too much credulity: “What can I say? I’m terrible with faces. And names. And numbers. And times. And dates” (9). Sympathizing with Eleanor Flood wasn’t happening for me, and I nearly gave up on the book several times. It was hard to find likable the character who flaunted this parenthetical aside: “Me, on the other hand, I’ve been to nine shrinks in twenty years and I’m still like, ‘Wait… what?’” (102)
The book gains some momentum, though, when Eleanor goes to visit Joe at work, and he’s not there, supposedly ‘on vacation,’ though he hadn’t bothered to tell his family. Timby—the best written and most likable character in the book—tells his mother: “Smell the soup, cool the soup.”
“It’s what they teach us in school when we’re upset. Smell the soup.” He took a deep breath in. “Cool the soup.” He blew out. (48)
Eleanor’s lunch date is not with the person she’d thought. And her long-kept family secret, even if not all that remarkable initially, does set up opportunity for Semple to fill in compelling and moving background to her narrative. As the book looks back, Eleanor’s detachedness and self-absorption make a little more sense.
In fact, when Semple changes from first-person to third-person narrative, her smart writing (shown in snatches early on—“constant low-grade state of confusion” (55) comes out more fully and frequently. She describes a street scene in New Orleans, having followed Eleanor back to her complicated past with sister Ivy:
On one side of the street a kid had attached tops of soda cans to the soles of his unlaced Air Jordans. He tapped in a loose-limbed burst and then stood there. His friend across the street answered back. Neither seemed particularly committed. (151)
Learning what “had taught Eleanor to shut herself off” (160) allows for the reader-narrator rapport that the first half of the book misses. The second half is fast-paced yet still incisive, both poignant and funny, and—at last— relatable.
I actually cheered for Eleanor as she drove to track down Joe (notwithstanding the early afternoon’s art-related concussion) with her child in the car:
“You know how I said your subconscious is a deep-down part of you that sometimes has bad ideas?” I said to Timby. “This isn’t that. This is me, your mom, doing something I know full well is a bad idea.” (191)
You won’t see the ending coming, but you’ll be okay with that, since by the time Semple sets it up, you might actually like Eleanor Flood. (I always wanted good things for her sweet Timby, who needs his own novel.) If you can get through what feels like a slog through the first half of a book, then there awaits some fine writing, smart character analysis, funny one-liners, and hard-earned insights into the human desire to love and belong.