Friday, September 30, 2016

Different? Yes, but…

Today Will be Different by Maria Semple

Eleanor is having a very difficult time right now. Her budding cross-dressing son is once again pretending to be sick to get out of school, and she really should be working on her book - her graphic memoir - but one thing leads to another and, well, yes, this day really is turning out to be different; or is it?

When any author makes a splash, my immediate tendency is to read something by that author that’s received less acclaim, if possible. I feel that this is a good way for me to gauge how closely attuned these authors are to my personal taste. That way, if I dislike the writing, I won't be panning something that "everybody loves." On the other hand, if I like this "lesser" work, I can be almost assured that I will enjoy their "hit" as much, if not more. Semple's last novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, was a real success, gaining four and five stars from many authors and reviewers I respect; so the opportunity to read this book was one I couldn't refuse.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid that Semple's third novel has essentially turned me off to looking at her other work. Now, I realize that Semple is actually a very good writer, particularly when it comes to absurdities and humor. Her track record is one that is quite impressive (having contributed to such fun TV shows as "Mad About You" and "Ellen," as well as helping produce "Arrested Development"). The problem is that as fun as these vignettes are (in and of themselves), they just don't hold together as a cohesive story, at least not on paper. In fact, if done right, this book could be turned into an adorably funny movie or TV series. But on paper... sorry. One reason for this is the problems with all of the back-story parts. In the book, these melded almost indistinguishably into the present action, with no segues in the text, and the only thing separating the past from the present being blank lines between the paragraphs or a new page of text (and sometimes not even that). This made for a very confusing read.

Of course, perhaps that was Semple's plan to begin with - to give the readers a book that baffles them in order to amplify Eleanor's being such a befuddled woman. If that's the case, then Semple certainly succeeded. However, as far as I was concerned, the way I had to puzzle over this book annoyed and frustrated me, which made in an overall failure. Moreover, I think that if Semple had succeeded in making Eleanor a more sympathetic character, perhaps this story wouldn't have bothered me as much. I think my main problem with Eleanor was that Semple made her far too clueless despite having a relatively successful career. Yes, there are people who succeed amazingly in one area of their lives while failing miserably in other areas. Unfortunately, in Eleanor's case, Semple underplayed the successes and overplayed her density and inabilities. For example, Eleanor's illustration work was impressive enough to land her a book deal to write a graphic memoir. Sadly, Eleanor's life made her miss her deadline. That's reasonable, until you realize that she's missed that deadline by EIGHT years! I'm sorry, but that's just stupid.

Regrettably, this isn't the only obtuse thing in this book. There are parts in Eleanor's past that pop up seemingly at random, although these are generally the types of things that come back to haunt the present. Semple does follow through with some of these, but when the book finishes there are still bunches of unresolved and unrelated things still out there, flying around like gnats. All of this made me think that somewhere along the way Semple lost the point (or perhaps jumped the shark), and what we're left with is very nicely written work that is simply a jumble of incidents surrounding a very sad woman. Semple repeats this with the beautifully drawn graphic story "The Flood Girls" included in the book, which despite the artistry, is nothing more than a mishmash of pretty but disjointed pictures.

This isn't to say that Semple isn't a talented writer, because I think she is (and she's an accomplished artist, as well), but obviously her previous novel must have been more focused than this one. With all this in mind, and after much deliberation, I'm sorry but I'm going to have to give this book a low rating of two and a half stars out of five, and cannot - in all honesty - recommend it to my readers (although I'm sure some of them might still want to read this. I would love to hear from those that do read this book who disagree with me).

"Today Will be Different" by Maria Semple, published by Hachette Book Group (a division of Little, Brown & Company), release date October 4, 2016, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a proof copy of this book in return for an honest review (and if this isn't honest, I don't know what is)!