“Today Will Be Different,” the title of Maria Semple’s latest comedic novel, is also what the main character, Eleanor Flood, says to herself the morning of a day when everything is, indeed, different — but not in the way she had intended. This was supposed to be the day when she would be an exemplary parent, a sensual wife, a model best friend and a calm, kind, centered person — which gives us a hint of the type of person she envisions herself to be the rest of the time.
What follows is a day that begins at the breakfast table and ends with various injured body parts, a cast of motley characters and a promise for the next day to start fresh all over again.
Semple’s 2012 bestselling novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” had a madcap vibe and a “bad mother” protagonist — the unapologetic, imperfect Bernadette — that captivated readers. “Today Will Be Different” has the same snappy dialogue, zippy adventures and inside jokes about the Seattle scene.
Eleanor’s day starts off on the right track as she meets with her poetry instructor and plans the afternoon, which includes lunch with a barely tolerated “friend” she’s sworn to be nice to. But almost immediately, she is interrupted by a phone call from the school nurse: Her son Timby (so-named due to an autocorrect error) has a stomachache and Eleanor will have to pick him up.
From there, Eleanor’s “different” day unravels. She and Timby race from Seattle landmark to Seattle landmark, Timby acting as the calm to her storm. She can’t locate her husband, Joe; her lunch date turns out not to be with the friend, but instead with a former colleague she’d rather forget; she discovers that her book contract has been canceled, and on this day in particular she is haunted by her estranged relationship with her younger sister Ivy — who Timby does not know exists.
Eleanor is an artist, and in her early years she lived in New York, where she worked on an animated cult television series called “Looper Wash.” It was then that she also wrote and illustrated a memoir called “The Flood Girls” as a wedding present for Ivy. That book — a short graphic novel about their weird and troubled childhood — forms the heart of this novel. (Literally.)
“Today Will Be Different” is perhaps more a series of interwoven scenes featuring a wild cast of caricatures than it is a tightly plotted narrative, but so was “Bernadette.” There’s much to laugh at, and be offended by, in Semple’s latest, which is why keeping things the same isn’t always a bad idea.
Meganne Fabrega is a writer, book critic and editor. She lives in Portsmouth, N.H.
Today Will Be Different
By: Maria Semple.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 259 pages, $27.