Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
Reviewed by Ellie Scott, November 2016
Today Will Be Different, the latest novel from Aspen’s darling Maria Semple, author of bestselling Where’d You Go, Bernadette captured me immediately with the all-too familiar sentiments of its opening paragraph. This novel, in Semple’s signature wit and cynicism, brings to light the absurdity, futility and yet the necessity of one’s march toward salvation through self-improvement. Hilariously rendered, Today Will Be Different tells of one day in the life of Eleanor Flood, a middle-aged mother of pudgy, gender-confused eight year-old Timby (named after an iPhone auto-correction of the name Timothy), and wife to Joe, hand surgeon for the Seattle Seahawks. Eleanor’s artistic career as a television animator has all but fizzled out, and though it’s a daily grind of fighting a white woman’s ennui, every morning presents her with the opportunity to start anew with a laundry list of ways in which she will do better: today she will wear yoga clothes only to yoga, she will play a board game with Timby, she will reflect deeply the meaning of the poem she’s reading in her private poetry lessons, she will initiate sex with Joe. Today her “face will be relaxed, it’s resting place a smile.”
With an observation on each page to elicit at least a chuckle (and many times a hearty laugh), Semple comments—through Eleanor’s evasions and endeavors—on the quixotic nature of self-help (an astonishingly sweeping movement among the creative class) in a culture that rarely encourages deep self-examination.
But perhaps the best part of this book for Aspenites….? Is that it’s full of Aspen. Eleanor Flood has been nominated for a Minerva, a prize awarded to graphic novelists, for her work on a book called The Flood Girls, which recounts her childhood spent in Aspen in the seventies. This meta-novel actually appears as an illustrated 16-page insert that will surprise and delight you as you recognize the Aspen landmarks…some of which you’ve likely set foot in recently.
Despite her best Mrs. Dalloway efforts to present a fresh face to a world that demands we live up to the persona we’ve stigmatized ourselves into, Eleanor still manages to weasel out of the actual work of self-improvement. Until a rapid and unexpected sequence of events bring about a violent cataclysm of past and present, and impose the work upon her. As she dangles by a thread, she is forced to confront her former self.
Gradually, we learn the backstory of her difficult childhood—she tells Timby about buying clothes from the “chunky section” of “some awful store in Glenwood Springs”—and Eleanor slowly (and with many setbacks) begins to check off the eternally long list of ways in which today will be different. In her own madness-induced rant, Eleanor’s message to Timby is this: “Life is one long headwind. To make any kind of impact requires self-will bordering on madness. The world will be hostile…it will misinterpret you, it will inject you with doubt, it will flatter you into self-sabotage…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 to care.”
Perhaps the most honest character, Alonzo, whom Eleanor deems “my poet” grapples with the same self-struggle, although his outward experience looks completely different. Enduring the humiliation of pedaling steakfish samples at a Seattle Costco, Alonzo the poet struggles to be the man he envisions as his best self.
Today Will Be Different will resonate with readers on so many levels: it’s filled with hilarious pop culture references and wildly funny observations about our times, but also full of embarrassing truths about aging and motherhood. It comments on the terror of facing your former self and unflinchingly outlines the daily work of living up to who you know you have the potential to be. But the most resonant part of Semple’s book? Oh yeah, all the Aspen references! A handful of our locals make cameos throughout the chapters. See how many you can count. And don’t forget to come hear Maria Semple speak at Explore Booksellers! She and her brother Lorenzo Semple will be in conversation about this incredible tour de force at 4:00pm on November 25th.