Friday, 30 December 2016

Book Review: Today Will Be Different

Today Will Be Different
Maria Semple
Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2016 (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)

After the phenomenal success that was Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, Maria Semple found her way onto my list of go-to authors.  Her writing did that rare thing-- it made me laugh without making me feel like I was reading something that was going to rot my teeth.  I can still remember the way that it felt to be sucked into the world of Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, right down to the fact that I played Monopoly with my family the evening after I finished it.

In the interim between these two books, I've read Semple's (then) hard to find debut, This One is Mine, which in my opinion was a better, edgier book than its Baileys' Women's Prize follow up, and watched all of television's Arrested Development, which Semple was involved in writing.

So when I heard that she had a new book out in 2016, you could say that I was excited.

The protagonist of Today Will Be Different is eminently relateable.  Eleanor Flood was once the head animator on a beloved television show called Looper Wash.  These days, she is mother to Timby (named by an autocorrect mishap) and wife to Joe, a surgeon who caters to sports stars and famous people who won't wait in the same waiting rooms as the normal folk.  The book, aside from a number of flashbacks, takes place over the course of a single day, beginning with Eleanor telling herself when she wakes up that today is going to be a better sort of day and she is going to be a better version of herself.  However, the best laid plans and all that, Eleanor's day turns out nothing like she had planned, beginning with the moment Timby's school rings to say that he has yet another stomach ache and needs to be picked up.

The thing about Today Will be Different is that I expected it to be funny but I think it would be more accurate to say that it is wry.  The cynical thoughts we encounter through Eleanor's first person narration are those which are familiar, be it the incarceration of trendy young Mums and ultra- PC private schools ala Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies or the very familiar indictment of people who wear yoga pants but don't actually go to yoga.  While this book is interesting and makes some great observations, it did not have the laugh out loud moments that I was expecting.

Perhaps that is because there is tragedy in Eleanor's backstory which makes her (unbeknownst to herself even) quite prone to bouts of low mood and ultra high self-criticism.  She seems to me to not be coping well at all, and yet she believes the things that are not going so well for her are due to failings on her part, rather than the fact that her mother died when she was nine, her father was an alcoholic bookie, and her sister married an emotionally manipulative man who separated two women who had previously been very close.

I was intrigued by the story of Eleanor's life before the today of the title, but the book never really lets you get close enough-- those parts of the story are told in third person, including, bizarrely, an anecdote about an altercation with a yoga teacher told by Joe.  I would have liked to have seen more of what happened, and more of a resolution of what came after the day of the novel, as these were the moments when there was a real sense of how low Eleanor had sunk in the time that had passed.

The high points of this novel were Eleanor's interactions with Timby, which were often full of surprising but realistic truisms out of the mouths of babes.

Go into this novel not expecting Bernadette, but expecting something a lot more real.

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