It’s probably unfair to judge this book so heavily in comparison with another, as if it’s not its own thing, but it’s inescapable for me. Like many people, I absolutely fell in love with Semple’s second novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, when I read it back in 2012. My love was perhaps stronger because the book came out of nowhere. I hadn’t been planning to read it, much less love it, but it grabbed me anyway without my permission. I love when books do that. Now that I’ve finally read more than one thing Semple has written, I can see that a large part of my enjoyment of that book was her voice as a writer. It’s clear and witty and sprinkled throughout with moments of sincere poignancy. But it was also partly the story. And here, with Today Will Be Different, the story was lacking.
It’s an interesting conceit to follow your protagonist around for one day only, one employed by many writers previously, but I think Semple makes it work by the end enough to justify using it. Her protagonist is the artist, Eleanor Flood. Eleanor lives in Seattle* with her husband Joe and her son Timby (the source of his unusual name could have come off too clever, but I thought it was sweet). She’s a bit of an emotional mess, and she knows it. She used to be the animation director for an Emmy winning animated TV show, and has been supposedly working on a book, a graphic novel about her childhood. She’s actually sort of hard to like at first, she has such a strong personality, and Semple isn’t afraid to give her opinions that might turn us on her (she’s very judgmental, for one thing, and self-absorbed in the sense that her own stuff makes it hard for her to notice other people’s, even though she wishes she wasn’t).
*In the same neighborhood as Bernadette & Co. Her son even goes to Bee’s school, Galer Street.
I ended up on her side by the end, though, because that’s what context does for you, and that’s what good writers do. They paint three-dimensional pictures of complex characters with complicated emotional lives. Eleanor is a difficult person, but once you get the big picture of her life, she makes sense, and it becomes easier to understand her. It also helps that Eleanor is self-aware. She knows when she’s doing something crazy or insensitive or selfish, and part of her struggle in this book is a struggle against herself. I also really liked her family and friends, even the one friend she doesn’t know why she’s friends with (her reaction to this friend at the beginning of the book was one of the reasons I didn’t like her at first). Timby, Joe, and Alonzo (her poetry instructor) were especially likable.
I think this might be a book I enjoy more on re-read. It’s short and quick, but I think my zooming through it may have done it a disservice. It feels like a book you meditate on and think about. Especially since it is so short. Anyways, I liked it, and if you’re reading this review because you liked Bernadette and you’re curious whether you’ll like this, I’d say give it a shot. They have some similar themes (middle aged women who think their best work is behind them, professional crises, familial love, the foibles of marriage, etc).
[3.75 stars for now, rounding up because it got better as it went]