Chapter 16
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One Long Headwind

Maria Semple’s latest anti-heroine struggles to turn over a new leaf

Spending a day in the mind of Eleanor Flood, as the reader does in Maria Semple’s third novel, Today Will Be Different, is a little like spinning around and around until you fall down—only funnier. And sadder. And definitely more entertaining.

mariasempleEleanor is a forty-nine-year-old artist and the former animation director of a long-running satirical cartoon series. A New Yorker at heart, she now lives in Seattle, where her sweet and stalwart husband, Joe, is a renowned hand surgeon who consults for the Seattle Seahawks. Eleanor and Joe have lived in Seattle for ten years, raising their eight-year-old son, the resilient and offbeat Timby—his name an unlikely iPhone autocorrect version of “Timothy” that stuck. The boy is a third-grader at the “ruinously expensive” Galer Street School, where his parents enjoy a bit of celebrity cachet: “Seattle is short on star power. A past-her-prime animator and a Seahawks doctor make me and Joe the Galer Street equivalent of Posh and Becks.”

Eleanor begins the novel’s day in question with a vow to make some serious life changes: “Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound,” she says. “Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being. Today will be different.” Imagine the opposites of those noble attributes and you’ll have a fair picture of Eleanor on a normal day: she eviscerates Catholics (“As everybody knows, being raised a Catholic with half a brain means becoming an atheist”), Amazon employees (“They work for Amazon, so you know they’re soulless”), jazz music (“I’m not a fan of jazz. No woman is”), and Jesus (“Please stop saying Jesus. People might think we’re poor”), just to name a few.

Eleanor’s saving grace, of a sort, is self-knowledge: she reserves her greatest disapproval for herself. “If I’m forced to be honest,” she says, “here’s an account of how I left the world last week: worse, worse, better, worse, same, worse, same. Not an inventory to make one swell with pride.” Eleanor means well. But her impulsivity and poor judgement often cause circumstances to spiral out of control. The day that will be different begins innocuously enough, with Eleanor keeping her promise to “shower, get dressed in proper clothes, and change into yoga clothes only for yoga, which today I will actually attend.” Yoga doesn’t happen, but she does make it to her private poetry tutor, an attempt to improve her fuzzy memory through memorization: “What can I say? I’m terrible with faces. And names. And numbers. And times. And dates.”

todaywillbedifferentBut before the discussion of Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” can proceed, it is interrupted by a call from Timby’s school. He’s come down with yet another mysterious stomachache and needs to be picked up. From this simple errand springs a helter-skelter arrangement of events encompassing stolen keys, a lost dog, a forgotten lunch date, a suspicious yacht, years of dysfunctional family relationships, the meaning and purpose of art, an abandoned memoir, a head injury, a tragically misplaced carton of ice cream, and a desperate mission—and those are just the highlights. Eleanor doesn’t so much live life as alternately hide from it and wrestle it to the ground. In this follow-up to the wildly popular Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Semple explores a similar theme: the artist’s struggle to find her place in an absurd world. But while Bernadette is often portrayed at a distance through her daughter’s eyes, the reader has a front-row seat to the post-modern episode of I Love Lucy that is Eleanor’s life.

The success of Today Will Be Different hinges on Eleanor’s vulnerability and good intentions. As the unexpected events of the day peel away her layers of protection, it becomes clear that Eleanor is in the throes of a kind of grief. Readers who find her a kindred spirit—and a lovable mess—will root for her to come out on top, even if they feel a strong desire to cover their eyes in the process. Eleanor’s advice to the intrepid Timby reveals much about her demons. “Life is one long headwind,” she says: “To make any kind of impact requires self-will bordering on madness. The world will be hostile, it will be suspicious of your intent, it will misinterpret you, it will inject you with doubt, it will flatter you into self-sabotage. My God, I’m making it sound so glamorous and personal! What the world is, more than anything? It’s indifferent.” But indifference is not an attitude many readers will adopt toward the indomitable Eleanor Flood.