Maria Semple’s third novel, “Today Will Be Different,” has a straightforward enough premise: a day in the life of her narrator, Eleanor Flood, a well-intentioned, middle-age New Yorker living in Seattle with her husband and son as she toils away on a graphic memoir. She begins the day with an oath: to look people in the eye, to smile, to be her best self. But Eleanor’s self-improvement plans quickly go awry when her precocious son, Timby, fakes a stomachache and must be picked up from school. She then finds out that her celebrity doctor husband, Joe, has told his office their family has been on vacation for a week, igniting suspicions of adultery.
This off-kilter, witty send-up of life in Seattle (reminiscent of her last book, the much lauded “Where’d You Go, Bernadette’’) explores the gap between the people we aspire to be and the people we truly are, and the things that conspire to undermine us — principal among those being ourselves. As Eleanor puts it, “Because there’s me and then there’s the beast in me.”
The day is set in motion with Eleanor reciting Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” over breakfast in preparation for her poetry lesson. The poem is autobiographical and lays out Lowell’s attempt to reconcile the importance of self-revelation and art — and his imminent sense of doom. You can practically sense Semple rubbing her hands together like a mad scientist because she’s about to blow our minds. With her bemused son as her sidekick, Eleanor hurls through the day in search for answers as to her husband’s whereabouts, having lunch with a colleague she once fired, stumbling into a sex-addicts anonymous meeting — it feels as though we are along for the ride with a slightly unhinged narrator at the helm. But despite its modest set-up, her journey feels revelatory because the language is steeped in metaphor, and the characters approach the feel of allegory.
At times “Today Will Be Different” reads like a modern-day take on Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” a lifetime captured in a single day, with people, places, and events recalling days past. For instance, as Eleanor hides from her company in Joe’s home office later in the day, her mind meanders to the disillusionment of her relationship with her sister Ivy. She throws books that remind her of Ivy in the trash, but her eye keeps being drawn to the graphic memoir she’d drawn for her sister before their estrangement. Semple includes 12 glorious hand-drawn pages from “The Flood Girls,’’ which depicts Eleanor and Ivy’s heartbreaking childhood of loss and neglect as children to an alcoholic father.
Like a poet, Semple uses words ripe with myriad meanings. In reference to a carton of Dreyer’s ice cream, the object that precipitated the sisters’ estrangement, Ivy says, “We finally got to the bottom of it.” Semple has Ivy use such open-ended language that, “We finally got to the bottom of it,” could be interpreted many ways.
While Semple manages to craft a multilayered saga, her comedy chops (she wrote for such hit TV comedies as “Mad About You’’ and “Arrested Development’’) are evident everywhere. In one scene, Eleanor is congratulating herself for successfully concealing her judgment after discovering Alonzo, her self-important poetry teacher, handing out samples of breaded tilapia at Costco. Embarrassed, Alonzo chases her down in the parking lot, vowing to quit the store. Why? “It was that look on your face,” he says. “My face was beatific and serene . . . wasn’t it?” Eleanor tries to persuade him to return to his post, but Alonzo dramatically tosses his apron into a dumpster. “Yesterday was worse. Yesterday they gave me ostrich jerky [samples] . . . I didn’t kill the ostriches. I didn’t hang them up to dry and hack them into strips! I just handed it out. I’m a poet!” A knowing co-worker in a wheelchair zips over and warns Alonzo to retrieve his apron or risk a $25 deduction from his final paycheck.
You can almost sense Semple’s wry smirk as she speaks to her reader through the guise of her characters. As Eleanor and Timby admire an art installation of two framed panes of glass, Eleanor explains, “[T]his is art, daring to put a frame around something, signing your name, and letting it speak for itself.” And that’s exactly what Semple has done here: She’s framed “Skunk Hour” with a novel and bookended it with self-improvement vows. “Today Will Be Different” is nothing short of a masterpiece, but best of all, it’s satisfying to read something that seems to have been so much fun to write.
TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT
By Maria Semple
Little, Brown, 259 pp., $27