Maria Semple's Today Will Be Different: Read the first chapter
'I’ve always found that tapping into a vein of deep shame or unhappiness was a sure way to strike gold,' the 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' author tells EW of her new book
In October, Where’d You Go, Bernadette author Maria Semple will unveil her hilarious, heart-warming third novel Today Will Be Different. Her latest follows in the footsteps of previous entries This One Is Mine (2008) and Bernadette (2012), plunging into the world of a woman in pursuit of something more. And today, EW is thrilled to reveal the book’s cover and first chapter, which introduces reader to Eleanor Flood, a character Semple says “is very much based on me.”
The book follows a restless Eleanor, who sets out to reinvigorate her life, only to be shoved astray by a number of chance setbacks: her son decides to fake sick at school, her husband tells his office–but not Eleanor–he’s on vacation, and a former colleague’s buzzy memoir threatens to spill a family secret from the past.
“I’ve always found that tapping into a vein of deep shame or unhappiness was a sure way to strike gold,” Semple tells EW via email. “But when I began writing, I had nothing to complain about! I’d written a best-selling novel. I was young enough, in good health. I was in a loving, long-term relationship. We had a delightful child. What legitimate pain would I have to work from? So the first day, I decided to sit down with a pencil and yellow pad, and see what flowed. What came out was essentially the first page of the novel. I looked at it and felt nauseous. Why, when I have everything required for happiness, am I always failing myself and those I love?”
Though Today Will Be Different takes place mostly in Seattle in a one-day stretch, the middle section, called “Troubled Troubador,” is set in New Orleans over 10 years. “[That section] is written in wry, restrained third person,” Semple says. “It was scary to attempt because I felt like I needed to become a ‘better’ writer to pull off the voice. I love the way it turned out, and especially how trickily it fits into the narrative.”
Also featuring a 12-page graphic novel “dropped into the book” and illustrated by Eric Chase Anderson, Today Will Be Different explores how one day can change everything. “When I wrote that first page and felt its electricity, that pretty much dictated the form of the novel. It told me I was writing about a woman who was waking up one morning determined to be her best self. And despite Eleanor setting the bar almost comically low for herself, her plans still go awry.”
Check out the cover and first chapter below, and find Today Will Be Different on shelves October 4.
Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I’m speaking 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. I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and only change into yoga clothes for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today I won’t swear. I won’t talk about money. Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. 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.
Because the other way wasn’t working. The waking up just to get the day over with until it was time for bed. The grinding it out was a disgrace, an affront to the honor and longshot of being alive at all. The ghost-walking, the short-tempered distraction, the hurried fog. (All of this I’m just assuming, because I have no idea how I come across, my consciousness is that underground, like a toad in winter.) The leaving the world a worse place just by being in it. The blindness to the destruction in my wake. The Mr. Magoo.
If I’m forced to be honest, here’s an account of how I left the world last week: worse, worse, better, worse, same, worse, same. Not an inventory to make one swell with pride. I don’t necessarily need to make the world a better place, mind you. Today, I will live by the Hippocratic Oath: first do no harm.
How hard can it be? Dropping off Timby, having my poetry lesson (my favorite part of life!), taking a yoga class, eating lunch with Sydney Madsen who I can’t stand but at least I can check her off the list (more on that later), picking up Timby, and giving back to Joe, the underwriter of all this mad abundance.
You’re trying to figure out, why the agita surrounding one normal day of white people problems? Because there’s me and there’s the beast in me. It would be kind of brilliant if the beast in me played out on a giant canvas, shocking and awing, causing fabulous destruction, talked about forever. If I could swing that, I just might: self-immolate gloriously for the performance art spectacle. The sad truth? The beast in me plays out on a painfully small scale: 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. Ha! Aren’t you glad you’re at a safe distance, doors locked, windows rolled up? Aw, come on. I’m nice. I’m exaggerating for effect. It’s not really like that.
And so the day began, the minute I whipped off my sheets. The click-click-click of Yo-Yo’s nails across the hardwood, stopping outside the bedroom. Why, when Joe whips off his sheets, doesn’t Yo- Yo trot-trot-trot and wait in abject hope? How can Yo-Yo, on the other side of a closed door, tell it’s me and not Joe? It was once depressingly explained by a dog trainer: it’s my smell Yo-Yo’s caught whiff of. That his idea of Nirvana is a dead seal washed up on the beach leaves me asking: is it time for bed yet? Nope, I’m not doing that. Not today. I didn’t mean to be coy about Sydney Madsen.
When Joe and I arrived in Seattle from New York ten years ago, we were ready to start a family. I’d just wrapped five wearying years at Looper Wash. Everywhere you looked it was Looper Wash T-shirts, bumper stickers, mouse pads. “I’m a Vivian.” “I’m a Dot.” You remember. If not, check your nearest dollar store, the two-for-one bin, it’s been a while.
Joe, a hand surgeon, had become a legend of sorts for reconstructing the hand of that quarterback whose thumb bent back and nobody thought he’d ever play again but the next year he went on to win the Super Bowl. (I can’t remember his name, but even if I did, I couldn’t say, due to doctor/patient/nosy-wife confidentiality.)
Joe had job offers everywhere. Why Seattle? Joe, a nice Catholic boy from outside Buffalo, couldn’t see raising kids in Manhattan, my first choice. We struck a deal. We’d move anywhere he wanted for ten years; then back to New York for ten; his city for ten, my city for ten; back and forth, unto death. (A deal he’s conveniently forgotten his end of, I might add, seeing as we’re coming up on year ten and not a peep on packing up.)
As everybody knows, being raised Catholic with half a brain means becoming an atheist. At one of our skeptic conventions (yes, our early years were actually spent doing things like driving to Philadelphia to watch Penn Jillette debate a rabbi! Oh, to be childless again… or not) Joe heard that Seattle was the least religious city in America. Seattle it was.
A Doctors Without Borders board member threw Joe and me a welcome-to-town party. I swanned into her Lake Washington mansion filled with modern art and future friends, mine for the taking. My whole life, I’ve been liked. Okay, I’ll say it: I’ve been adored. I don’t understand why, on account of my disgraceful personality, but somehow it works. Joe says it’s because I’m the most guy-like woman he’s ever met, but sexy and with no emotional membrane. (A compliment!) I went from room to room, being introduced to a series of women, interchangeable in their decency and warmth. It was that thing where you meet somebody who tells you they like camping and you say, “Oh! I was just talking to someone who’s going on a ten-day rafting trip down the Snake River, you should totally meet them” and the person says, “That was me.” What can I say? I’m terrible with faces. And names. Andnumbers. And times. And dates.
The whole party was a blur with one woman eager to show me funky shops, another hidden hikes, another Mario Batali’s father’s Italian restaurant in Pioneer Square, another the best dentist in town who has a glitter painting on his ceiling of a parachuting tiger, another willing to share her housekeeper. One of them, Sydney Madsen, invited me to lunch the next day at the Tamarind Tree in the International District.
(Joe has a thing he calls the “magazine test.” It’s the reaction you have when you open the mailbox and pull out a magazine.
Instantly, you know if you’re happy to see this magazine or bummed. Which is why I don’t subscribe to the New Yorker and do subscribe to Us Weekly.) Sydney Madsen has turned out to be the human equivalent of Tinnitus Today.
That first lunch: she was so careful with her words, so sincere in her gaze, noticed a small spot on her fork and was overly solicitous of the waiter when asking for a new one, brought her own tea bag and asked for hot water, said she wasn’t very hungry so how about we split my green papaya salad, told me she’d never seen Looper Wash but would put a hold on the DVDs at the library.
Am I painting a clear enough picture of the tight-assed dreariness, the selfish cluelessness, the cheap creepiness? A water- stained fork never killed anybody! Buy the DVD’s, how about? Eat the food at the restaurant, that’s how they stay in business! Worst of all, Sydney Madsen was steady, earnest, without a speck of humor, and talked… very… slowly… as… if… her… platitudes… were… little… gold… coins.
I was in shock. Living too long in New York does that to a girl, gives her the false sense that the world is full of interesting people. Or at least people who are crazy in an interesting way.
At one point I writhed so violently in my chair that Sydney actually asked, “Do you need to use the powder room?” (“Powder room?” “Powder room?!” Kill her!) The worst part? All those women with whom I’d gladly agreed to go hiking and shopping? They weren’t a bunch of women. They were all Sydney Madsen! Damn that blur! It took everything I had to kink her fire hose of new invitations: a weekend at her cabin on Vashon Island, introducing me to the wife of someone for this, the playwright of something for that. I ran home screaming to Joe.
Joe: You should have been suspicious of someone so eager to make friends, because it probably means she doesn’t have any.
Me: This is why I love you, Joe. You just boil it all down. (Joe the boiler. Don’t we just love him?)
Forgive me for long-hauling you on Sydney Madsen. My point is: for ten years I haven’t been able to shake her. She’s the friend I don’t like, the friend I don’t know what she does for a living because I was too stultified to ask the first time and now it would be rude (because I’m not rude), the friend I can’t be mean enough to so she gets the message (because I’m not mean), the friend to whom I keep saying, no, no, no, yet she still chases me. She’s like ALS: you can’t cure her, you can just manage the symptoms. For today the lunch bell tolls.
Please know I’m aware that lunch with a boring person is a boutique problem. When I say I have problems, I’m not talking about Sydney Madsen.
Yo-Yo trotting down the street, the prince of Belltown. Oh, Yo- Yo, you foolish creature with your pep and your blind devotion and your busted ear flapping with every prance. How poignant it is, the pride you take in being walked by me, your immortal beloved. If you only knew.
What a disheartening spectacle it’s been, a new month, a new condo higher than the last, each packed with blue-badged Amazon squids, every morning squirting by the thousands from their studio apartments onto my block, heads in devices, never looking up. (They work for Amazon, so you know they’re soulless. The only question, how soulless?) It makes me pine for the days when Third Ave was just me, empty storefronts and the one tweaker yelling, “That’s how you spell America!”
Outside our building, Dennis stood by his wheely trash can and refilled the poop-bag dispenser. “Good morning, you two.”
“Good morning, Dennis!” Instead of my usual breezing past, I stopped and looked him in the eye. “How’s your day so far?” “Oh, can’t complain,” he said. “You?” “Can complain, but won’t.” Dennis chuckled. Today, already a net gain.
I opened the front door of our apartment. Down the hallway: Joe face down at the dining room table, his forehead flat on the newspaper, arms splayed with bent elbows as if under arrest.
It was a jarring image, one of pure defeat, the last thing I’d ever associate with Joe–
The door shut. I unclipped Yo-Yo from his harness. By the time I straightened, my stricken husband had gotten up and disappeared into his office. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to talk about it. My attitude? Works for me!
Yo-Yo raced to his food, greyhound-style, back legs vaulting past his front. Realizing it was the same dry food that had been there before his walk, he became overwhelmed with confusion and betrayal.
He took one step and stared at a spot on the floor.
Timby’s light clicked on. God bless him, up before the alarm. I went into his bathroom and found him on the stepstool in his PJs.
“Morning, darling. Look at you, up and awake.”
He stopped what he was doing. “Can we have bacon?”
Timby, in the mirror, waited for me to leave. I lowered my eyes.
The little Quick Draw McGraw beat my glance. He pushed something into the sink before I could see it. The unmistakable clang of lightweight plastic. The Sephora 200!
It was nobody’s fault but my own, Santa putting a makeup kit in Timby’s stocking. It’s how I’d buy myself extra time at Nordstrom: telling Timby to roam cosmetics. The girls there loved his gentle nature, his sugar sack body, his squeaky voice. Soon enough, they were making him up. I don’t know if he liked the makeup as much as being doted on by a gaggle of blondes. On a lark, I picked up a kit the size of a paperback which unfolded and fanned out to reveal six different makeup trays (!) holding 200 (!) colors of shadows, glosses, blushes, and whatever-they-weres. Whoever had found a way to cram so much into so little should seriously be working for NASA. If they still have that.
“You do realize you’re not wearing makeup to school,” I told him.
“I know, Mom.” The sigh and shoulder heave right out of the Disney Channel. Again, my bad for letting it take root. After school, a jigsaw puzzle!
I emerged from Timby’s room. Yo-Yo, standing anxiously, shivered with relief upon seeing that I still existed. Knowing I’d be heading to the kitchen to make breakfast, he raced me to his food bowl. This time he deigned to eat some, one eye on me.
Joe was back and making himself tea.
“How’s things?” I asked.
“Don’t you look nice,” he said.
True to my grand scheme for the day, I’d showered and put on a
dress and oxfords. If you beheld my closet, you’d see a woman of specific style. Dresses from France and Belgium, price tags ripped off before I got home because Joe would have an aneurysm, and every iteration of flat black shoe… again, no need to discuss price. Buy them? Yes. Put them on? On most days, too much energy.
“Olivia’s coming tonight,” I said with a wink, already tasting the wine flight and rigatoni at Tavolata.
“How about she takes Timby out so we can have a little alone time?” Joe grabbed me by the waist and pulled me in as if we weren’t a couple of fifty year olds.
Here’s who I envy: lesbians. Why? Lesbian Bed Death. Apparently, after a lesbian couple’s initial flush of hot sex, they stop having it altogether. It makes perfect sense. Left to their own devices, women would stop having sex after they have children.
There’s no evolutionary need for it. Our brains know it, our body knows it. Who feels sexy during the slog of motherhood, the middle- aged fat roll and flattening butt? Who wants anyone to see them naked, let alone fondle their breasts squishy like bags of cake batter, or touch their stomachs spongy like breadfruit? Who wants to pretend they’re all sexed up when the honey pot is dry?
Me, that’s who, if I don’t want to get switched out for a younger specimen. “Alone time it is,” I said to Joe.
“Mom, this broke.” Timby came in with his ukulele and plonked it on the counter. Suspiciously near the trash. “The sound’s all messed up.”
“What do you propose we do?” I asked, daring him to say, Buy a new one.
Joe picked up the ukulele and strummed. “It’s a little out of tune, that’s all.” He began to adjust the strings. “Hey,” I said. “Since when can you tune a ukulele?”
“I’m a man of many mysteries,” Joe said, and gave the instrument a final dulcet strum.
The bacon and French toast were being wolfed, the smoothies being drunk. Timby was deep into an Archie Double Digest. My smile was on lockdown.
Two years ago when I was getting all martyr-y about having to make breakfast every morning, Joe said, “I pay for this circus. Can you please climb down off your cross and make breakfast without the constant sighing?”
I know what you’re thinking: what a jerk! What a sexist thug! But Joe had a point. Lots of women would gladly do worse for a closet of Antwerp. From that moment on, it was service with a smile. It’s called knowing when you’ve got a weak hand.
Joe showed Timby the newspaper. “The Pinball Expo is coming back to town. Wanna go?”
“Do you think the Evel Knievel machine is still broken?” “Almost certainly,” Joe said.
I handed over the poem I’d printed out and heavily annotated.
“Okay, who’s going to help me?” I asked.
Timby didn’t look up.
Joe took it. “Ooh, Robert Lowell.”
I began from memory: “’Nautical Island’s hermit heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage; her sheep still graze above the sea. Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer’s first selectman–‘“
“’Her farmer is first selectman,’” Joe said.
“Shoot. ‘Her farmer is first selectman.’”
I shushed Timby and continued with eyes closed. “’Thirsting for the hierarchic privacy of Queen Victorian’s century, she buys up all the eyesores facing her shore, and lets them fall. The season’s ill– we’ve lost our summer millionaire, who seemed to leap from an L.L. Bean catalogue’–”
“Mommy, look at Yo-Yo. See how his chin is sitting on his paws?”
Yo-Yo was positioned on his pink lozenge so he could watch for dropped food, his little white paws delicately crossed.
“Aww,” I said.
“Can I have your phone?” Timby asked.
“Just enjoy your pet,” I said. “This doesn’t have to turn into electronics.”
“It’s very cool what Mom is doing,” Joe said to Timby. “Always learning.”
“Learning and forgetting,” I said. “But thank you.”
He shot me an air-kiss.
I pressed onward. “’His nine-knot yawl was auctioned off to lobstermen’–”
“Don’t we love Yo-Yo?” Timby asked.
“We do.” The simple truth. Yo-Yo is the world’s cutest dog, part Boston Terrier, part Pug, part something else… brindle-and-white with a black patch on one eye, bat ears, smooshed face and curlicue tail. Before the Amazon invasion, when it was just me and hookers on the street, one remarked, “It’s like if Barbie had a pit bull.”
“Daddy,” Timby said. “Don’t you love Yo-Yo?”
Joe looked at Yo-Yo and considered the question. More evidence of Joe’s superiority: he thinks before he speaks.
“He’s a little weird,” Joe said and returned to the poem. “Let’s do this.”
Timby dropped his fork. I dropped my jaw.
“Weird?!” Timby cried.
Joe looked up. “Yeah. What?”
“Oh, Daddy! How can you say that?”
“He just sits there all day looking depressed,” Joe said. “When we come home, he doesn’t greet us at the door. When we are here, he just sleeps, waits for food to drop or stares at the front door like he has a migraine.”
For Timby and me, there were simply no words.
“I know what he’s getting out of us,” Joe said. “I just don’t know what we’re getting out of him.”
Timby jumped out of his chair and laid across Yo-Yo, his version of a hug. “Oh, Yo-Yo! I love you.”
“Keep going,” Joe flicked the poem. “You’re doing great. ‘The season’s ill’….”
“’The season’s ill,’” I said. “’We’ve lost our summer millionaire, who seemed to leap from an L.L. Bean catalogue–’” To Timby, “You. Get ready.”
“Are we driving through or are you walking me in?”
“Driving. I have Alonzo at 8:30.”
Breakfast over, Yo-Yo got up from his pillow. Joe and I watched as he walked to the front door and stared at it.
“I didn’t realize I was being controversial,” Joe said. “’The season’s ill.’”
Excerpted from the book TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT by Maria Semple. Copyright © 2016 by Maria Semple. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.