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Moving, Memorable 'Today Will Be Different' Balances Humor And Tragedy

When 49-year-old artist Eleanor Flood wakes up one weekday, she makes herself a promise. "Today will be different," she vows. "Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I'm capable of being. Today will be different."

Spoiler alert: She's right. Her day turns out to be unlike any other one, but not exactly in the way she hopes. Maria Semple's Today Will Be Different, her follow-up to the bestselling Where'd You Go, Bernadette, takes place in less than 24 hours, but packs in more twists, jokes and genuinely moving dialogue than anyone has the right to expect.

Eleanor's day starts off uneventfully. She drops Timby, her third-grader son, off at his tony private school, and steels herself to have lunch with her friend Sydney, whom she dislikes intensely. ("She's like ALS: you can't cure her, you can just manage the symptoms.") She's quickly summoned back to the school to retrieve Timby, who claims to be sick.

Timby's pediatrician blames his stomachache on school-induced stress, so Eleanor decides to let him accompany her to a meeting with a former colleague, who brings to light an element of her past that she'd just as soon forget. Then she takes her son to the office of her husband, Joe, a sports doctor, only to find out that Joe has told his office staff (but not Eleanor) that he'd be out of town for the week.

Things only get weirder from there. It wouldn't be fair to ruin the surprises that Semple springs on her readers, but they involve the Seattle Seahawks, the Pope, a disgruntled poet with a lousy grocery store job, and a crashed meeting for sex addicts. Semple crafts her twists and turns beautifully; they're always surprising and never less than hilarious.

Semple navigates the strait between funny and tragic with incredible grace — perhaps because she recognizes there's not really much distance between the two.

She also uses flashbacks to clue readers in to Eleanor's past. We learn that she made her name as an animator on a television show called Looper Wash, about four pony-riding girls "who misdirected their unconscious fear of puberty into a random hatred of hippies, owners of pure-bred dogs and babies named Steve." And we're introduced to her younger sister Ivy and her husband, Bucky, a controlling but charismatic New Orleans neo-dandy who few people can actually stand.

Most movingly, we read about Eleanor's childhood, when she and her sister lost their mother. "Timby, it's not your fault my mother died when I was your age," Eleanor thinks in one exceptionally poignant passage. "You don't know that all the time you have with me from now on is a gift. It's not your fault I can't absorb that lesson myself. ... How do I break it to you that people aren't predictable? That life is confounding and sadistic in its cruelty?"

It's a serious moment, but Today Will Be Different is first and foremost a comic novel, and it's filled with countless laugh-out-loud musings. Take this passage, where Eleanor describes subjects she's proactively decided not to care about: "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lena Dunham, the whereabouts of the stolen paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist, what GMO even stands for ... If that makes my human existence a limited one, I stoically accept my fate."

Semple navigates the strait between funny and tragic with incredible grace — perhaps because she recognizes there's not really much distance between the two. Eleanor is an expressive character who can go from laughter to tears in seconds; in Semple's hands, it feels like Eleanor's emotions are a perfectly sane response to an increasingly bizarre world.

While all of the characters in Today Will Be Different are beautifully portrayed, this is, in the end, Eleanor's book. She's an intensely canny judge of character, even when she turns the microscope on herself: "Anytime I get into a one-on-one social situation, especially if there's something at stake, my anxiety spikes. I talk fast. I jump topics unexpectedly. I say shocking things. Right before I push it too far, I double back and expose a vulnerability. If I see you about to criticize me, I jump in and criticize myself."

Writing a comedy novel that manages to connect emotionally is no easy task, but Semple knocks it out of the park. Today Will Be Different is hilarious, moving and written perfectly, and it makes a good case for Semple as one of America's best living comic novelists. "The world isn't your friend," Joe tells Eleanor when they first meet. "It's not designed to go your way. All you can do is make the decision to fight the trend." That's what Eleanor does every day, different or not, and it makes her one of the funniest and most realistic characters in recent fiction.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.