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Maria Semple’s Charm Offensive

The author of ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ returns with a funny, absurd novel about being a slightly better person

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Be the writer you wish to see in the world. Maria Semple would never, ever write a sentence so cliché-ridden or thoroughly cheesey; if anyone in her universe had a thought like that, it would be one of the tone-deaf parents that populate her versions of Seattle. But that’s how you could describe her approach to her latest novel, Today Will Be Different. On Page 1, her main character, Eleanor Flood, writes a note to herself (and thus to the reader) declaring that she “will be present. Today, anyone I’m speaking to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. … I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and only change into yoga clothes for yoga, which today I will actually attend.” The self-commandments set the stage for all that comes next.

Even if you don’t know Maria Semple’s name, you know her work. Her previous novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, spent one year on The New York Times best-sellers list. She was a writer on TV shows including Beverly Hills, 90210 and Mad About You, and she was a producer on Arrested Development. So while her latest endeavor is full of projection, she already has the career most novelists and screenwriters would aspire to. But Maria Semple wants you to know that is not enough. She uses her latest novel to remind us, and herself, to be better.

Semple said to me in an interview that she wrote that first page “the first day I sat down to work on my new novel,” in response to what she called “the daily shame of realizing that even though I’ve set the bar incredibly low for myself, I still don’t clear it by what I’m doing at the end of the day, and just how awful that is when I have all the privilege.” If you’ve read Bernadette, it’s no surprise that the weight of privilege motivates her work. The eponymous Bernadette is in flight from hers, and the Seattle of both books is dotted with moms who lack any urgency — except when it comes to butting in.

Today Will Be Different is Semple’s third novel, and the second one set in Seattle. The book takes place over the course of one day, with diversions to explain why Eleanor Flood needs this day to be unlike the ones that came before. She is an artist, best known for her work as the animation director on a TV show. But that was Eleanor’s previous life. We meet her as a harried mom in Seattle, estranged from her sister, spending the day with her son who is faking sick. On this day, she is hoping for an entire life overhaul. On this day, she drops her cell phone into a bucket, possibly suffers a concussion, and suspects that her husband is cheating on her. And it’s all very funny.

Semple’s exploration of mostly white privilege is naturally woven throughout: in Eleanor’s language lessons, carpool run-ins, and the anguished, self-deprecating narration that explains it all. But the best vestige of this concern is Looper Wash, the fictional TV show that Eleanor worked on. If you ask Semple, Looper Wash is a minor part of the novel — she says she only “kind of [touched] on it in a few places” — but the fake show has an outsize presence in the novel, and those places are the most joy-filled in the book and our heroine’s life. It’s about four libertarian teenage girls who ride around on ponies and hang out in a dry river bed; they hate technology, and progress, and hippies, and food waste. It’s an animated show so high concept that it could be real, and it’s a neat vehicle for depicting and skewering the privilege of coastal yuppies and the artists who cater to them. (Only the comfortable and satisfied are free to reject technology and progress. Didn’t Arrested Development teach us this as well?) It also lets readers know that Semple is aware of her and her heroine’s position. Plus, everything having to do with Looper Wash is fun and lighthearted — I swear!

The fake show is based on an actual screenplay that Semple wrote on spec with her boyfriend George Meyer (a long-time producer of The Simpsons), and Eleanor’s experience with her animating team is a proxy for Semple’s years spent in TV rewrite rooms. It turns out that being a young TV writer may be just as fun as it seems: “I’ve always kind of wanted to write about the camaraderie and how you turn feral when you’re working with these people, and you just end up becoming really mean and pleased with yourself about how mean you’ve become,” Semple says. “And there’s nothing better in life, but then you step out into the real world and you can’t believe what kind of animal you’ve turned into.”

That temporary normalization of mean trickled down from Semple to Eleanor. In a brief but poignant exchange, Eleanor explains the premise of Looper Wash to her son. He tells her it sounds mean, to which Eleanor explains, “When you get older, mean is funny.” There may be evidence of this (see: Seinfeld), but Semple’s main character spends her day struggling to find an audience. Through encounters with a former Looper Wash underling, her surgeon husband’s administrative employees, and a 10-year frenemy, it’s obvious that Eleanor has a disconnect. Outside of the animators’ cabal, she’s lost the context to ground her style. Even if mean is funny, she’s not selling anyone on her acidic style anymore.

When Semple talks about why Looper Wash is a plot point in her novel instead of an actual Hollywood movie — it didn’t connect with people who get movies made — it’s hard not think of Eleanor and the greater divide that permeates Today Will Be Different. There are jokes and ideas that are funny only in private, but do they have to be? For Bernadette, the answer was yes. Her life was a study in evading the outside world. For Eleanor, the answer is more complicated. She repeatedly confronts her own struggle with with the private versus public.

We meet her at a moment of crisis in her marriage, but the truly fraught relationship in her life is with her sister, Ivy, and it’s one that has frayed because Eleanor couldn’t process that maintaining appearances may be important to other people. Several years before the Day, Eleanor attended her sister’s engagement party in New Orleans, celebrating her coming nuptials to a society man of questionable moral fiber. The party was photographed by The Times-Picayune, and Eleanor made the grievous error of helping the party’s staff. She dished out ice cream when a server was otherwise detained, and as a result, the carton made it into one of the Times-Picayune’s photos, blemishing the otherwise unadulterated portrait of patrician living. Yes, this incident led to the dissipation of her sister bonds. Absurd as it may be — and Semple is surely aware of the farce — Eleanor can’t understand why evidence of a ice cream carton may upset her brother-in-law-to-be. Ice cream doesn’t fracture a relationship, but her unwillingness to acknowledge propriety, even when the rules are objectively bullshit, does.

She risks losing her husband as a result of the same myopia. His name is Joe, and he is the surgeon for the Seattle Seahawks. (Apparently, Semple trafficks in dream jobs, real and imagined.) He’s also a lapsed Catholic, who, along with his wife, refers often to his atheism and disenchantment with the church. Avoiding spoilers, suffice to say his relationship with Christianity is more complicated than Eleanor’s narration indicates, and, crucially, it’s a relationship he keeps to himself. He comes to personify the collision between the civic religion of football — one marked by apparel and aggressive marketing — and traditional religion — which comes in various, personalized, less telegraphed forms.

The whole day is backdropped by the pope’s impending visit, where Joe will be delivering a sermon at the Mariners stadium. Professional sports and religious communing are one in the same in this version of Seattle. Eleanor takes note of both and bristles at them. Semple identified the conflict here as Eleanor’s commitment to self-determination versus the spirituality of religion: “Eleanor is like self-will. … The religion thing is the opposite magnetic pole.” However it’s labeled, the tension is one of individual pursuit against the congregating of a group. Eleanor reacts adversely to all assemblages — except for her Looper cohort, but even that couldn’t last. They created a show for public consumption, but the fun was all derived from their private “camaraderie,” to use Semple’s term.

Today Will Be Different calls out all kinds of binaries, and whereas Where’d You Go, Bernadette immersed itself in discrete spheres, this one is reluctant to accept such a rigid system. Semple says writing the book was unlocked for her when she realized the first section would be a “charm offensive, where [Eleanor’s] trying to get the person [the reader] to like her in a really kind of manic way.” A charm offensive requires active will. It requires an acknowledgment of the audience. It requires Eleanor to try.

The book ends just like it begins, with Eleanor’s self-commandments — except with a few new additions to the list. Among them: “Today I’ll try to score Timby and me tickets to the Pope.” Private people can go out in public, too.