Did I hate Maria Semple’s Today Will be Different? Did I love it? Did I love-hate it? I can’t tell. Maybe writing this will help me sort it out. Or book club on Thursday.
It opens with a rich, white woman (Eleanor) living in New York reflecting on her privilege (at least she’s self aware?) and of how she wants to be a better version of herself. More yoga classes attended, fewer days spent just wearing yoga pants. In the first twenty pages I was pretty sure I’d spend the entire novel hating this character and her self-absorption. You’d think it would be pretty hard to muster sympathy or interest for such a character. You would think that.
But then. Maybe it’s a Stockholm syndrome of the first person narrator? Or more probably, that I began to admit that my instinctive reaction against Eleanor was – perhaps, maybe, just possibly – the recognition of my own absurd privilege and simultaneous feeling that my life is so. hard. So I let myself be taken in by the navel-gazing and the what-counts-as-catastrophe-when-you-make-a-bazillion-dollars catastrophes of Eleanor’s day. And found myself… enjoying the novel. A lot. (okay, so there’s the admission I couldn’t make to myself in the opening paragraph to the post).
We follow Eleanor through one, memorable day. As the funny (very funny) story unfolds (no really – I laughed out loud more than once) we get flashbacks and a few narrative point of view digressions that fill out Eleanor’s character and the significance of the unspooling events. And by the end of it I cared about Eleanor and her family and I wanted her to be okay.
Do rich white people deserve less sympathy for problems that are – to them – very real and consequential? Probably. Okay definitely. The earnest willingness of Eleanor in this novel to simultaneously admit that her problems are those of privilege and to feel them deeply opens up these questions of the relativity of pain. And her constant striving reveals the anxiety threaded through this reader’s experience that no matter what, enough is never really enough, and good is never really good enough.
You might read this and think I’m way off. That it’s just entitled, self-absorbed nonsense (instead of entitled, self-absorbed nonsense that is also asking some interesting questions). Do let me know. Given how many people are reading this book, I expect you’ll have an opinion.