I like my books the same way I like my friends: genuine. When a book is relatable, humorous, and easy to read the prospect of curling up with it becomes all the more appealing. That is exactly what Maria Semple accomplishes in her novel Today Will Be Different. Broaching a myriad of topics from motherhood to sisterhood, careers, to life, Semple presents it all with grace and ease.
There are over 171,000 words in the English language and billions of ways to string them all together. Semple found a way to weave together her words in a nuanced and lyrical way. For example, Eleanor describes her consciousness as something that “lives underground like a toad in winter.” That extra bit of imagery paints a clearer picture and helps the reader understand the protagonist just a little bit more.
But it is not just the tone of her words that impacted me, but the way Semple presented them. Having a first person narrator allowed Semple to break the fourth wall and talk directly to her reader. This type of narrator also gives the protagonist more freedom in the sense that she, Eleanor Flood, was able to orient personally her listener in her life; almost as if she is colluding with you, letting you in on a secret that is for your eyes only.
Sometimes, if the book is really good I develop a connection with the characters. I root for them, chastise them for poor decisions, and yes, on rare occasions I even cry for them. Reading this novel I saw the world through Eleanor’s eyes, I saw her worries and her flaws, what made her tick and what ticked her off. Eleanor became a real, relatable person. Though she may be “a past-her-prime animator” married to a seemingly perfect hand surgeon husband with an adorable son, she has secrets that we as readers get to experience. We step inside her head and experience her life, if only for a day.
Creating an insightful, but not preachy, character is hard to do, but here I think Semple excels. Even though Eleanor is a fifty-year-old mother, she divulges factoids about herself that can relate to anyone (even a college student in the midst of applying for copious amounts of summer internships).
Eleanor states when she is nervous, “I talk fast. I jump topics unexpectedly. I say shocking things. Right before I push too far, I double back and expose a vulnerability.” This is candid statement that pulls no punches. Declarations like those make the book feel real, like you have a front row seat to her subconscious; the prose is not overly academic, instead it flows more like a conversation. It makes you think about Eleanor, but also about yourself.
Though the main timescale of the book takes place in one day, Semple jumps around in time, creating a nesting doll-like framework. The big doll is just one day in Eleanor’s life, but once you open up that doll, inside there are many smaller dolls and each is a different anecdote from Eleanor’s past that all fit together perfectly in the larger work of the story. Through these jumps, the reader gets to know Eleanor’s ethereal but disappointing sister Ivy, her alcoholic father, the story of how she met her husband, Joe and more.
But the core allure of this story is and always will be Eleanor. Between the pages of the novel, Eleanor’s melancholy life comes into focus. She had a hard childhood: a dead mother, a deadbeat father, and a relationship with her sister that started out strong but degraded over time. All those struggles caused Eleanor to become a bit calloused, but did not prevent her from finding her place in the world.
Most importantly, her life experiences helped her learn a very powerful secret, one that she shares with her eight-year-old son. “That’s the thing about hard times,’ [she] said. ‘Generally speaking, one survives.’” Though that statement is blunt, it communicates so much about the character Semple built. Eleanor is a pragmatist, but an optimistic one, she is a mother but one that does not sugar coat the world for her child. Above all else, she is a survivor who slogs through life even when she would rather stay in bed.
Do yourself a favor and read this book. It will not take you long, but it will stick with you long after you reach the end.