Less Than Hero

Every day we should be improving. Our productivity and happiness should be on the rise. We should be making more friends. Our spouses should love us more and our children should be happier and increasingly confident about their positions in the world. And if we are not improving, inching closer and closer to our best lives, then we are failing ourselves and everyone around us.

The burden of this pervasive cultural lie, that life should be a relentless victory march, asserts itself on every page of Maria Semple's new novel, Today Will Be Different (Little, Brown, $27). Like Bernadette Fox, the title character of Semple's wildly popular novel Where'd You Go, Bernadette, Eleanor Flood is a wife and mother who once had a thriving career but now has very little on her plate aside from her marriage and child. And like Bernadette, Eleanor fills the void with her racing thoughts and half-baked schemes. From the first page of the book, Eleanor announces that, yes, she's kind of a wreck, but she's about to turn over a new leaf. "Today I will be present," she resolves. "Today, anyone I speak to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I'll play a board game with Timby. I'll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. . . . Today I will radiate calm."

You don't need to be a disheveled, distracted human who hates board games to relate to Semple's protagonist from the start, maybe because contemporary culture has a way of making us all feel like failures just for being alive. But as Eleanor dashes frantically from one disconcerting scene to the next, we understand that her overinvestment represents a desperate attempt to avoid what she calls "the ghost-walking, the short-tempered distraction, the hurried fog" that is "a disgrace, an affront to the honor and long shot of being alive at all." She is searching for salvation from a life that has become a series of "regrettable micro-transactions usually involving Timby, my friends, or Joe. I'm irritable and consumed by anxiety when I'm with them; maudlin and shit-talking when I'm not." But even as Semple distills the modern state of adult life with breathtaking precision, she also poses bigger questions: Can we blame our shallow yet unrealistically demanding culture for having turned us into twitchy, thin-skinned curmudgeons? Or have we always been irascible animals—the only difference now being that the culture evolving around us defines our thrashing and gnashing of teeth as deeply unhealthy and unacceptable?

Perhaps as a means of challenging these standards, Eleanor flaunts her impatience with the people around her at every turn. When an acquaintance asks Eleanor if she needs to use the powder room, Eleanor's private response is "Powder room? Powder room? Kill her!" Later, she describes a bunch of curious parents: "Like ostriches, they all stopped and cocked their heads at me." In another scene, she asserts that a former coworker "was so nervous and eager to ingratiate himself that his presence was excruciating."

In other words, Eleanor is just as off-kilter and arrogant as Bernadette. Today Will Be Different also shares the unconventional plot structure of Where'd You Go, Bernadette. The book's frantic misadventures take place over the course of a single day, during which Eleanor is trying to locate her husband and determine whether he's about to leave her for someone else. Even though the scope of the novel is narrow, Semple's small story opens up, through flashbacks and twists and digressions, into a universe of bewildering emotions. She infuses each scene with jokes and insights, so that even seemingly trivial interactions with odious parents and an awkward lunch with a long-lost acquaintance veer into unexpectedly rich territory.

Marisa Takal, See you from my Window I can See Your Shadow as you Watch me in my Bathrobe, 2014, oil on canvas, 24 × 20". Courtesy the artist.

Semple's tendency to back into every story is in full effect here. When an old-school aristocratic louse named Bucky is introduced halfway through the book, it seems unlikely that he'll play a crucial role in Eleanor's emotional journey. Eleanor treats Bucky as a diversion that won't have any lasting impact on her life. Yet she relishes the peculiarities of annoying people; she can't resist learning more about this deliciously awful person. Then her sister Ivy starts dating him. Eleanor's struggle to remain open-minded about Bucky is captured vividly in Semple's descriptions of Ivy's engagement party in New Orleans: "The air felt cozy with kindness and laughter, not like New York, where people you talked to perpetually scanned the room for someone better. . . . Manners, Eleanor grasped through the haze of mint juleps, weren't a function of hollow snobbery and misguided airs; they were acts of profound generosity." A sense of foreboding sets in as Semple shows us this stubborn creature of habit viewing the knee-jerk-repugnant specter of old South money through new eyes:

Who would have thought blue-and-white stripes went with butter and birds and gold and jute, but it worked. So did being looked in the eye when people spoke to you, and teens in tuxes conversing with adults. Why not waiters in tails and white gloves? Why not Bucky's mother and her friends in decades-old dresses, sun-damaged skin, frosted lipstick, and low chunky heels? Why not flowers from the garden and dinged julep tumblers and food that was good but not great?

Still, Eleanor's irritability is always right there on the surface, mixing in with her optimism, her curiosity, and her multiple-mint-julep buzz.

Of course, even in her most flexible and openhearted state, Eleanor is too disrespectful of Bucky's values not to be doomed. She tries to help out at the party by putting a carton of ice cream directly on the table next to the pie instead of serving it in a cachepot, and the next morning her sister calls to alert her to her grave mistake. "In the Times-Picayune this morning you can see it, bold as life, right there among the Charbonneau china. Dreyer's." She has ruined Bucky's photograph, and this misstep is nearly unforgivable. This is the kind of bizarre detail that, like so many of the best details, is far too strange to not be real. That's the way many of Semple's most vivid passages feel; they're too sad and too nuts not to have happened in real life.

Semple has mastered the intersection of sad and nuts like no one else. What's surprising about Today Will Be Different is that even when life is incredibly unfair to our slightly unhinged heroine, she's humble enough to take some of the blame. By the end of the book, Eleanor is remorseful and begging for mercy, but she's also furious in spite of herself. Semple wisely recognizes that these emotions are not at odds with each other. Eleanor is aware of her own flaws, but she figures she can somehow finagle a happy ending. The biggest lesson for a sloppy egocentric charmer like Eleanor is that some people can't be talked out of their rigid, nonsensical positions, and some errors can't be erased. People you love don't always want to work things out with you. Sometimes they just disappear, and you can't turn off your love for them once they're gone. Semple hints that if you try to stop caring completely, it will only make you an even more irascible animal than you were before.

Like a cross between Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, the best episodes of Bob's Burgers, and the private journal of the smartest, most irritable woman you know, Today Will Be Different is a reckless and scattershot work of genius. On page after rambling page, Semple's brilliance is irrefutable and untamed and a tiny bit lazy. If she worked a little harder, one suspects, she could take home every book prize under the sun. But who would want her to aspire to such things, when her haphazard storytelling yields such thrillingly unpredictable results? In fact, it's telling that her novel is about the triumph of pragmatism over preciousness, snobbery, and frailty. Eleanor's husband (the story's hero in many ways) is an extremely practical, hardworking surgeon who is described as a "kind, curious, principled man." Yet he's adaptable. One of his rules is "the first thing you do in a new city is take the public transportation." On the other hand, Eleanor's sister (arguably the story's antagonist) is the exact opposite, a hothouse flower and fragile soul who has "grown into her frailty" under the total control of Bucky, an overbearing husband who still withers at the tiniest slight.

You have to be more flexible than that to survive, Semple seems to be telling us. Because even though those distractions and irritations that Eleanor laments at the start of the book are an affront to being alive, trying to eliminate every moment of fear and doubt is like trying to Photoshop a carton of ice cream out of your fabulous photograph. In aiming for perfection, you are consigning yourself to some darkened powder room of a life where you're never quite good enough to join the party. But the party is already in full swing. The only choice is to throw yourself into it, like Eleanor does, for better or worse. Today might not be different. Maybe that's the bravest admission of all.

Heather Havrilesky is a columnist for New York magazine and the author of How to Be a Person in the World (Doubleday, 2016).