Friday, October 21, 2016

Review of Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

Last weekend, Seattle was supposed to experience an epic windstorm. We had one ten years ago, and it knocked out power for a while and made us all uncomfortable. Plus, my kids’ preschool was cancelled, and that meant that I was paying money for them to sit in my house with no electricity and nothing to do.

So my plan for this storm was to BE READY. The laundry was done. The food was prepared. I made sure the kids showered and wouldn’t smell for the duration of the event. I had batteries lined up for the flashlights and lots of candles (with matches!). I had blankets and warm pajamas. I also had liquor and a library copy of the new Maria Semple novel, Today will Be Different.

I imagined myself curled up, sipping a cocktail, wiping tears of laughter from my face. After all, I thought that Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? hit mostly all the right funny notes, and I expected nothing less from this follow-up. 

But then, after all that work to get prepared, the storm never raged. The local news sent all of its reporters out to various street corners to get blown around. They were supposed to say, “Look at everything being destroyed by this terrible weather! Look at me, barely able to stay upright in the gusts!” But, instead, the wind just went

*Puff *

and then died out.

One of the things that Semple does is parody Seattle and its left-leaning, often hypocritical hysteria. This kind of preparation-for-Armageddon is probably exactly the kind of craziness that makes her roll her eyes.  And certainly, the daggers she throws at Seattle (and left-leaning white people in general) in Today Will Be Different caused me to snort in appreciation.

But like the storm that didn’t happen, my enjoyment of this book never fully took off. The premise is that Eleanor, a middle-aged artist/animator/tv writer/graphic novelist (what did she do? It remained a little unclear to me), finds herself in a sort-of struggling marriage and a sort-of crumbling career. Over the course of one day, she stumbles toward getting her life together.

The thing is, however, there’s a darkish underbelly to Eleanor’s life. Her mother died when she was a child, leaving her and her sister to fend for themselves. Their father was often drunk and/or neglectful, and there was great pain around that. Now, as an adult, the estrangement Eleanor feels from her sister and the unresolved feelings she has about her parents seem to contribute to her inability to manage her life.

And that’s not really funny.

But instead of telling this more complicated story, Semple tries to dress it up in “comedy” (including an odd diversion to a sub-plot about New Orleans high society), which made me feel weird rather than wildly entertained.

This is still a good book. I’m sure many of you will read it and laugh at all the truly funny parts. I can see it as a satisfying novel to read on a long flight. However, I do wish that Semple had trusted us to be OK with the painful side of the story she wanted to tell.


Lark said...

I didn't know Semple had a new book out. I enjoyed her first one, but it sounds like I don't need to rush out and read this one right away. I'll definitely add it to my someday list though, because I do like her writing. And I'm glad you didn't get blown away by another big windstorm. :)

jennifer said...

Thanks! Yes, I'd say don't pay for the hard cover, but bring a library copy with you on a long plane ride.

Stephan Benzkofer said...

Great review, Jennifer. Marjorie and I are looking forward to this book, but it sounds like we'll need to tamp down expectations to enjoy it fully.

Gabrielle Gerhard said...

Good review. The photos tell all!

It must be hard as a writer to have used up so much "good stuff" on the world of Seattle and then have to do a follow up.