Buying a new book is kind of like going on a blind date. You judge them by how they look, you read their profile to see if you find them interesting, and you listen to other people say good things about them. Then you go on a date; get to know them. Sometimes you find them perfect at first glance, only to realise it’s all a flashy front. Other times they might leave a bad first impression, but you find more and more things to like about them as you go along.
There are also those that you just can’t quite bring yourself to like from start to finish – not because they’re bad, mind you – but simply because you don’t quite gel with them.
Sadly, for me, this was Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different.
It has been awhile since I did reading of any kind (blame it on electronics and my super short attention span these days), so this was a double let-down. I had very much wanted my first foray back into reading to be a good one. Today Will Be Different seemed to have held so much promise, from the bright orange cover and the “100 Notable Books” stamp on the bottom right of its sleeve, to the heaping praise on its back and in the first five pages of the novel (“Hilarious, heartwarming” – Dana Getz, Entertainment Weekly; “Deliciously mucky mayhem” – Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle). Oh, and apparently Maria Semple is a writer of renown, having written the critically acclaimed “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (which I haven’t’ read. It was made into a film starring Cate Blanchett).
It wasn’t as if Maria didn’t warn the reader though. The protaganist herself, Eleanor Flood, does it in the opening: “You’re trying to figure out, why the agita surrounding one normal day of white people problems?” Not being white, nor raised in the West, I found it difficult to relate to any of the characters in the book – which is perhaps the main problem. I am not the book’s target audience, which I assume to be other white women, like Eleanor herself.
Now, if I had heeded this warning, I might have saved myself three nights of reading, and spent it with another book. But by the time I realised I wasn’t going to like this one, I was in too deep to give up. (The irony is that in the book, Eleanor is basically faced with a similar situation with her ‘friend’ Sydney, whom she can’t stand because the latter is ‘boring’, but can’t bring herself to cut off because she’s already invested and it would be rude and mean.)
Eleanor Flood was once a high-flying animation director in New York, before she left her job to settle down in Seattle with her husband Joe, a hand surgeon of renown. The pair now live with their eight-year-old son Timby (spelled with a B, because rich white people have to give their children quirky names like Audio Science and Bear Blaze) and a pet dog, Yo-Yo.
The entire novel takes place within the span of a day and opens with a proclamation of sorts by Eleanor, that “Today will be different”, followed by a list of small, positive what-have-yous you often find in self-help books, like “no swearing”, “be my best self” and “attend yoga”. Of course, the day will be different: just not in the way Eleanor imagines it to be. Things start off well enough; she sees the husband off to work, drops Timby off at school and meets her poetry teacher for her regular poetry recitation – through it all, readers are given bits and pieces on Eleanor: how she used to be the animation director for Looper Wash, a popular animation series, and how she’s now working on a project called Flood Girls, a personal memoir about her life growing up with an alcoholic father, for a publisher.
Eleanor’s charming day starts to spiral out of control when Timby calls in sick from school, and she has to drive him to the doctor’s. Stopping by her husband’s office, only to be told by unsuspecting staff that he’s on vacation, Eleanor goes on a manic quest to find the whereabouts of her husband, and in the process, spiral completely out of control. A chance encounter with an old acquaintance dredges up ugly family secrets and past hurts, mostly revolving around Eleanor’s estranged sister Ivy. And like a typhoon on a warpath, Eleanor descends into a manic state of chaos, dragging her poor son along as she tries to deal with the hurt and betrayal of her past, her insecurities and her fear that Joe might be cheating on her.
I did not know wtf was going on throughout most of the book. Okay, maybe I did, but like Eleanor, it was so all over the place I had a hard time keeping track of things and the parade of ‘quirky’ characters who were all quirk and no true substance. The flashbacks felt like they were plonked into the middle of the story to give context to Eleanor’s trauma and why she is the way she is, but it feels forced and disrupts the flow of the story – I often found myself flipping back to see where the story was before it got interrupted. I also didn’t quite understand the choice where Semple switches to write in the third person in the middle of the novel.
To be frank, Semple has a certain charm to her prose, but her main character is just so unlikeable that I found it very difficult to sympathise with Eleanor’s bad choices and bizarre behaviour. Like leaving her son alone while she runs off to chase her poetry teacher whom she left hanging after receiving a phone call, stealing a young mother’s car keys because it happened to have the same name engraved on it as the name of her estranged sister’s daughter, then trying to sneakily return them by dropping them into the school charity collection box but dropping her own keys into them instead. Oh, she also leaves her dog tied outside a grocery store and forgets all about it while she’s trying to track her husband down.
I suppose these are all meant to be ‘funny’, in a “look at the kooky,middle-aged white woman! Aren’t we all sort of like that on some days?” Uh, no. Eleanor is a danger to herself and her son, and it’s amazing that this is a character written as a mother. If I had a mom like that I’d check myself into child services. Timby is more responsible than you! Stop acting like a goddamn brat!
Her manic energy and the way her train wreck of thoughts are translated onto the pages is not endearing (the best way I can describe it would be how I imagined a dog would be like when chased after something and saw a butterfly. Like woof woof angry postman bark oh look blue flying thing wow). It’s infuriating. More than once I have felt like throttling Eleanor, and that’s saying something, wanting to throttle a fictional character. If Eleanor was a person I knew in real life, I wouldn’t go near her with a ten-foot pole.
In most books, flawed characters have a redemption arc, but Eleanor doesn’t seem to take anything away from her experiences. She’s broken, yes, but she doesn’t rise above her past, she simply throws herself headlong into the next chaotic mess with reckless abandon, selfishly screaming about how hurt she is and how broken she is, while not caring about what happens to people she claims to care about.
The ending was truly bizarre as well and was not at all satisfying after slogging over the book for three days. But for those who want to read the book, I’m not going to spoil it.
I don’t think there are bad books, simply people who aren’t meant to read them. And Today Will Be Different was simply not for me. But hey, don’t trust me: trust the glowing book reviews from established publications. I’m just a nobody with a blog.