Thursday, January 16, 2020

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette has become one of my go-tos when people ask for a comic novel recommendation. Semple’s background as a writer for comedy shows really shone in the joke writing. I also loved the structure of the book; a daughter searching for documentary evidence of what happened to her mother. I think comic novels are often easy to write off as fluff, but the novel was very smart about relationships and loneliness. And of course it was hilarious. It skewered the lack of self awareness of wealthy Seattle. I picked up a copy of Today Will Be Different around the time I read Bernadette a couple years ago, but hesitated to read it; how could anything follow up that book? While it has a much more linear straightforward structure, it is actually as well done as the previous book. The more I think about it the more I like it.

The balancing act Semple does here is impressive. The protagonist, Eleanor Flood, a successful animator in NYC who has moved with her husband to Seattle, narrates and while her unreliability doesn’t hide something as sinister as say Lolita or What Was She Thinking (Notes on a Scandal), it is expertly played. She begins by saying that today she will be her best self, and actually ends with the same sentiment, but the shift in meaning between bookends is stark. Like Where’d You Go Bernadette, this contains some very sharp satire of self satisfied wealthy people and real understanding of their lack of self awareness. What is so impressive about this aspect of the book is that Eleanor’s lack of self-awareness is masked as self awareness. The bood trades expertly in screwball comedy tropes, but its characterization is subtle. Near the beginning, Eleanor’s voice seems the literary equivalent of the “can I talk to the manager haircut” memes. Her interactions with people are condescending in ways the narrator doesn’t seem to understand. Despite her statements that she is flawed, she seems to recognize the wrong ones. It doesn’t take long for the book to complicate that, though, as an undercurrent of sadness creeps in, obviously related to her sister. By the time that strand of the story plays out, and her privilege has butted up against an even greater and more frustrating one, she becomes more than just a clueless privilege monster, though she certainly has those tendencies. Through the narration and the screwball, at times slapstick, antics she has real moments of self realization and by the time she gets around to saying the titular line a second time she is a different person.

I don’t want to give the impression that the book is heavy handed about that. The light touch with which Semple handles this makes it even more impressive. The book is incredibly funny. Tightly plotted with jokes that almost all land. Her time in writer’s rooms on sitcoms (most notably (for me anyway) Arrested Development) really shows, both in the expert joke construction and in the dynamics of the writer’s room of the animated show Eleanor worked on that forms one of the novel’s settings.

My tastes most often run to the bleak, but I do have a real appreciation and love for works like this with a lighter tone, especially when executed this well. Today Will Be Different should not be dismissed on the basis of its genre or perceived slightness. It is very good indeed. I’m teetering between Highly Recommended and Canon-Worthy. I will almost certainly read it again.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 5/75

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