Sunday, 24 July 2016
"Today will be Different" Maria Semple
"Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I'm speaking to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I'll play a board game with Timby. Today I'll take pride in my appearance. I'll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and only change into yoga clothes for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today I won't swear. Today there will be an ease about me. Today I will radiate calm. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I'm capable of being. Today will be different."
And so opens Semple's second novel. Meet Eleanor. Desperate to keep control over her life as she feels it slipping away from her as she shuffles into middle age and looses her identity (and sex drive) in parenthood. But, try as she might to change her ways, the day has other things in store for her and soon we are caught up in the chaotic yet heartwarming life of Eleanor Flood as she tries to come to terms with her traumatic childhood and estranged relationship with her sister.
I loved the opening of the book. Eleanor's litany of how today will be different was hilarious but also masking a deeper sadness. Semple's writing is good and her use of metaphor really effective. I liked the description of Eleanor feeling like she is "ghost walking" in a "hurried fog"; "the blindness of destruction in my wake." Her depiction of motherhood is wry, astute and highly amusing. I loved her turn of phrase and I loved Eleanor's frank and blunt observations like "Left to their own devices, women would stop having sex after they have children. There's no evolutionary need for it. Who feels sexy during the slog of motherhood, the middle-aged fat roll and flattening butt?" I also related to her comments about "me and my pregnancy brain"and in fact how that continues forever:
"Your good brain is never coming back. You've traded vocabulary, lucidity and memory for motherhood. You're in the middle of a sentence and you know where it's headed, and at the end you're going to need to call up a certain word and you're worried you won't be able to, but you're already committed so you hurtle along and then you pause because you've arrived at the end but the word hasn't."
As with her previous female protagonist in "Where'd you go Bernadette?", Semple has once again successfully created the voice of an endearing and entertaining character. This time, she is a chaotic, slapstick, neurotic woman juggling a flailing career, comfortable marriage and young child. And as with her first book, I frequently found myself smiling and many comments resonated with me.
I liked the relationship between Eleanor and her husband and felt it captured parenthood with authenticity and insight. Her husbands request that she "climbed down off her cross and made breakfast without the constant sighing" really amused me! I also liked Eleanor's summarising of the days events: "I had to pick up Timby from school. It's a long story involving cheaply made clothing, Chinese slaves and an antagonist with the last name Veal." I also thought the son, Timby, was well constructed and used thoughtfully to illustrate Semple's points about Eleanor's struggle with her career, relationship and motherhood.
Semple writes with perception. It is entertaining and it is funny, it is witty, sharp and fast paced. But there is also a deeper level to Eleanor's ramblings. The second half of the novel focuses on Eleanor's traumatic and sad childhood and her complicated relationship with her sister. The more that is revealed about Eleanor's past, the more the reader understands about her fragile emotional and mental state and the complexities that can exist in families as a result of deeply buried secrets. She also uses the second half to look at the marriage between Joe and Eleanor and all the underlying tensions and anxieties haunting it.
I enjoyed the parts about Eleanor and Timby and enjoyed some of the sections featuring Ivy, Eleanor's sister. Eleanor is a very likeable character but I was less sure about Ivy - which I'm sure is deliberate. Ivy has had a much more complicated upbringing and Eleanor's sense of responsibility for this alongside with her almost obsessive need for Ivy adds a more psychological or philosophical depth to the story.
I enjoyed the parts about Ivy and Eleanor's childhood despite it's sadness. However, there were a few sections in between where I felt the structure lost it's way a bit and I often wasn't entirely sure where it was heading; I found myself getting a bit lost in some of it at times but I think this is due to the deliberately meandering style of the narrative structure which possibly represents Eleanor's cluttered mind. At times Semple seemed to get lost in details that I felt distracted from the main plot a little. There were a few occasions where for me, I felt we were given too much backstory about minor characters rather than the ones we were learning to care about but I think this was Semple's purpose. The book is more a contemplation of themes like siblings and life at 40 rather than a "story". I guess this is where "Today will be Different" differs from "Where'd you go Bernadette?" Perhaps the sense of "lost and found" is more important in this novel than the comic behaviour of both protagonists.
This novel deals with siblings, motherhood, parenting, relationships and life. There are deeper psychological issues lurking beneath the layer of more superficial fun. Semple's use of language proves she is capable of exploring a range concepts under the guise of humour.
All in all this is a readable, interesting book which will definitely leave you smiling. It reminded me of some great comic actresses or stand up comics and has echoes of some other contemporary writers although I do think Semple is more unique and original.
I think I probably still prefer "Where'd you go Bernadette" as I feel it had a slightly stronger plot and was slightly more controlled. But I really would recommend that you do read "Today will be different" as Semple's characterisation is always so well done and in fact they're quite a lot of connections between the two novels. I will still look out for any other titles from this author as I do find her style engaging and I do relate to her female characters a lot.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for an advanced copy of the book in return for a fair and honest review. I have been waiting for this next tile from Semple and I am thrilled I got to read a copy so far ahead of publication - it was a treat!
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