Today Will Be Different-Maria Semple

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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.

Finished 12/16

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?–Maria Semple

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I heard Maria Semple on Fresh Air with Terri Gross talking about her newest novel, Today Will Be Different.  I downloaded it on Audible and created reasons to listen until I reached the end.  I loved Semple’s direct but sarcastic voice.  I remember hearing buzz about Where’d You Go, Bernadette when it was first published, but I wasn’t motivated to add it to my wish list until I listened to Today Will Be Different.

Where’d You Go Bernadette was different in format.  It’s told as a dossier of documents interspersed with narrative.  Near the end of the novel Semple reveals that this dossier was assembled by Bernadette’s daughter, which is another narrative trick of the novel, to slowly release information that allows the reader to make sense of this disparate pieces put in front of him or her.

Bernadette is a middle-aged mother of one teenaged-daughter, who is finishing her last year of school in the states before heading to England for boarding school.  Bee, we learn, was born with serious health issues following a series of miscarriages.  Bee’s father is a programming genius who works at Microsoft, which is what brought the family to Seattle, a place Bernadette despises.  The family lives in an old girls’ school that is slowly returning to nature, complete with holes in the roof and moldering floor boards.  Even before she disappears, the reader can tell something is not right with Bernadette.  She spends her days in a travel trailer in their yard, where she writes highly personal emails to her virtual assistant, whom she’s hired against her husband’s wishes.

Bernadette is unhappy.  Her husband is absorbed by his work and disconnected from his family.  Bee is trying to hold the family in balance and has pinned a great deal of hope on a trip to Antarctica, a reward for a great report card, and a cause of serious anxiety for her mother, who seems to suffer from some measure of agoraphobia or social anxiety or both.

Most of us can connect to Bernadette through her fear of failure–in her career, her ability to become a mother, her ability to make friends, and her ability to hold her family together.  Fear and anxiety send Bernadette to her trailer, to disconnect, making her failures more and more likely.  While we may not all have a trailer retreat in the back yard and a virtual assistant to whom we can confide our darkest secrets, many of us can likely identify with Bernadette’s fears and her impulse to flee entanglements in order to protect herself from facing them.

I did not enjoy Semple’s first novel as much as her second, but I’ll take that as a positive sign and look forward to her third.

Finished 1/17

The Woman Upstairs–Claire Messud

 

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The Woman Upstairs begins and ends with anger.  “How angry am I?  You don’t want to know.  Nobody wants to know about that.”  And then “I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough–finally, God willing, with my mother’s anger also on my shoulders, a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me–before I die to fucking well live.”

Nora Eldridge is a third-grade teacher.  The kids’ favorite third-grade teacher.  She’s an artist. She was doing very well in business and stopped to become a teacher.  She cared for her dying mother and now cares for her widowed aging father and elderly aunt.  She has a strained relationship with her brother, who is married with a child and who is too busy doing important life things to be bothered with the obligations that fall upon Nora.  Nora wanted to be an artist, but her mother convinced her to do something practical so she could support herself and be independent.  She pushed Nora not to repeat her own mistakes.  She made art something impractical, unworthy.  Nora loved her deeply. “I loved being her child.  I remember looking at her and thinking she was the most beautiful thing in the world.”  Then she had to watch her die by creeping steps from MS.

Nora refers to herself as the woman upstairs, the spinster about whom people don’t think much, and when they do it’s uncharitable.  In other ways she is the woman upstairs.  She lives in her own head, sometimes too much.  She thinks and thinks, but fears doing.  Until she meets the Shahids, who are in Cambridge for a year for Mr. Shahid to finish a book project.  Reza becomes a student in her class whom she loves and protects.  Sirena is an artist who asks her to split a studio and whose energy pushes Nora to begin creating again and to whose own work Nora contributes.

Sirena and Nora collaborate to create Sirena’s vision of Wonderland, which is absolutely appropriate for Messud’s purposes, as Nora’s vision of reality is as distorted and razor sharp by turns as the world into which Alice falls.  The reality of perception recurs throughout the novel.  Nora sees her mother as having been trapped by marriage and motherhood, but realizes after talking with her father that he saw her mother as in charge of their lives–where they lived, when they had children and how many.  Nora worries all the time about how others see her–a failed artist who teaches because she can’t make art, a failed woman who teaches children because she does not have her own.  Fail, fail, fail echoes through Nora’s fears of others’ perceptions.  Fear stops Nora from acting.  When she finally lets go of fear she is pretending to be someone else.  When she becomes famous it is without her permission and without her identity.

Nora is middle-aged.  She fears becoming Lucy Jordan from the Marianne Faithfull song.  “The age of thirty-seven–the first of my Reza years–is a time of reckoning, the time at which you have to acknowledge once and for all that your life has a shape and a horizon, and that you’ll probably never be president, or a millionaire, and that if you’re a childless woman, you will quite possibly remain that way.  Then there’s a period of accommodation before you are formally and officially old.”  But even when she begins creating, it’s miniature dioramas of the rooms of famous women artists, women trapped in tiny rooms destined to be watched by Nora and anyone who sees Nora’s art.  They reminded me of butterflies pinned to fabric and labelled in a shallow box fronted with glass.

Nora longs.  Her longing becomes the filling between the anger that composes the start and end of the novel.  “Longing’ is a better word than ‘desire’: it carries its qualities of reaching but not attaing, of yearning, of a physical pull that is intense and yet melancholy, always already a little sorrowful, self-knowing, in some wise passionate and in some measure resigned. Desire suggests a burning, fervid, unreflective, something that wants, above all, satisfaction.”  To some extent, Nora replaces longing with anger and both perpetuate her focus on what is outside herself.  She longs for something she does not have.  She is angry at some external entity or force.  She still carries her mother’s anger, or the anger she perceives her mother as having.  The woman who lives too much in her head still, as the novel closes, has not made peace with herself and her relationship to the world.  She is angry enough to live well, but she does not have a road map for what that means or how to go about it.  She is going to live well to show others, not to live well for herself.  And that was disappointing.

I am middle-aged.  I worry too much about what others think.  I live too much in my head.  I often do not act because I fear failure.  I got Nora Eldridge for all of these reasons.  I suspect many people will/do.  Messud’s writing was beautiful at the sentence, chapter, and novel levels.  Her characters were finely drawn.  If only she had left me with more hope.  Nora put a tiny golden Joy in each of her miniature creations.  I’m still looking for it in Messud’s novel.

 

Finished 2/28/16