When I heard the list of goals Eleanor created for herself at the start of Semple’s new novel, I knew I had to read it. I downloaded it from Audible and was hooked. I walked on the treadmill. I cooked. I cleaned. Just to have an excuse to listen.
Like Semple’s previous novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, this third novel explores the world of a middle-aged woman who has not become the person she thought she would be. She is not as nice, as put together, as successful in work or her relationships. Her life seems to be the result of a series of near misses, including her son’s name, Timby, who attends the same school as Bee from Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Eleanor began her adult life as a talented artist on the hit show, Looper Wash. When she realized that her fertility was passing, she stopped working to have Timby. She now tries to create art in a closet-sized studio in her home, but finds herself easily distracted.
The conceit of the novel is its taking place in one day, but Semple extends the narrative frame through a series of flashbacks, many of which lead back to her sister, with whom she has a troubled relationship. Running from that failure, it seems, has led her to run from other failures or the chance of other failures, including finishing the book for which she was contracted years previous.
Eleanor is a glass-half-empty person, for which we can forgive her given her childhood in which she lost her mother, had a distant father, created a primary bond with her sister, who then left her life. Her gray outlook and the gray of Seattle lead her to see everything through a gray wash that is peeled away by the end of the novel. Semple’s ability to expose her characters flaws makes her novel a bit like cheap therapy, or an afternoon with a girlfriend who’s just enough more dysfunctional to make you feel good about your life while recognizing how good you both really have it.