Despite being the wife of a successful surgeon and the mother of a son long out of diapers, Eleanor Flood can’t seem to get her life together. Today will be different, she vows one morning, promising herself that on this one day, she will play a board game with her son, wear yoga clothes only for yoga, initiate sex with her husband, and, of course, buy local.
It’s an ambitious list only for someone with an undemanding life beset by first-world problems. That’s novelist Maria Semple’s first problem in getting readers to bond with Eleanor, her protagonist in Today Will Be Different. The second is that in describing her impossibly different day, Eleanor vows to “live by the Hippocratic oath: first do no harm.”
Actually, the Hippocratic oath says no such thing, something a physician’s wife (or someone writing about one) should know.
By page 15, Eleanor has admitted that she regularly goes to lunch with someone she detests so she can “check her off the list,” the most rewarding part of her life is her poetry lesson, she finds it taxing to remember faces, names, numbers and dates, and finds it an imposition to make breakfast for her husband and son each morning. Oh, and she named her son Timby. And randomly steals a set of keys from his school.
But stick with her.
This seemingly ditzy, entitled brat of a thieving mother will lead you down an enchanting rabbit hole of adventure. You will have to work to keep up with the story’s rapid-fire twists, and you may at times, resent this. But Semple, a former television writer with a comic bent, knows what she’s doing and where Eleanor’s going in her deceptively simple day. It just won’t be where you might think.
Eleanor and her husband, a famous hand surgeon who repairs the appendages of professional football players and celebrities, live in Seattle, chosen because it’s the least religious city in the U.S. (“As everybody knows, being raised Catholic with half a brain means becoming an atheist,” Eleanor says.)
Her days are packed with poetry lessons and lunch dates, in part, because she’s procrastinating from doing real work. A talented artist and animator who was once part of a quirky hit children’s show, she’s under contract to write a graphic memoir, but the deadline has passed, and so part of her day is also spent dodging phone calls from her editor.
Today, however, being different, she’ll pick up the call, and find out that she’s procrastinated a bit longer than she thought. She’ll also pick up Timby from school (where he was faking a stomachache to get away from a bully) and go to lunch with someone she’d written down on her calendar but can’t remember anything about.
The stranger turns out to be someone she’d fired from the TV show decades ago, who — unknown to her — had become a famous artist whose prize-winning work was being hailed all over the city. Over lunch, he gives Eleanor a booklet containing drawings she’d forgotten about, and that Timby had never seen. They were drawings about the Flood Girls, plural — including a sister Eleanor had never told her son about.
There’s also a another complication in the day, discovered when Eleanor calls her husband at work to discover that he isn’t there, and the secretary thought the family was away for the week. So add a potentially adulterous husband into the chaotic mix. Along with Eleanor’s poet-teacher, who, as it turns out, has to hawk frozen fish at a shopper’s club to pay the bills.
The real-time events of Today Will Be Different all transpire in a single day, but with flashbacks and changes in point of view that give the story its wisdom and emotional heft. It’s Semple’s fresh, saucy voice, however, that gives the novel its sparkle.
Instead of telling Eleanor to quit complaining, her husband urges her to “come down off your cross.” In describing another character’s heft, Semple writes, “He reminded Eleanor of how papayas swelled during the rainy season or the way Greg Gumbel looked like someone had taken a bicycle pump to Bryant Gumbel.” Of an unwanted hug: “It took breathing exercises from childbirth class to survive his bewildering, tuberose-scented act of compassion.”
And every now and then, Eleanor rises from her self-absorbed pratter to deliver a meaningful soliloquy on parenting or art:
“To make any kind of impact requires self-will bordering on madness,” she tells Timby. “… But you have a vision. You put a frame around it. You sign your name anyway. That’s the risk. That’s the leap. That’s the madness: thinking anyone’s going care.”
But care about Eleanor, we do, as well as the (mostly) winsome people that surround her, both in the past and present. Moreover, the ending isn’t predictable, a rarity these days in popular fiction. Tomorrow, it turns out, will be different, too. A
— Jennifer Graham