The author had a hard act to follow after her terrific first book Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and at first, I thought she might rise to the occasion. This book has a great start, with Semple’s satirical humor describing the narrator Eleanor’s state of mind, in which she vows this day (as you can imagine she does every day), she will be different. She asks:
“You’re trying to figure out, why the agita surrounding one normal day of white-people problems?”
(She might have more accurately said “non-upper-class problems” but at least she is aware that what she complains about are things which only those with privilege, leisure, and money would consider to be “miserable”.)
Eleanor and her husband Joe, a famous hand surgeon, live in Seattle. Both 49, they have been married 15 years and have one son, 8, named Timby. (She explains that when she was texting possible names to her husband, her IPhone autocorrected “Timothy” to “Timby” and they couldn’t resist using it as the name.) Timby is possibly the best character in this book. Precocious beyond his years, his ease with life and adaptability helps ground his mother.
The main drama of this book revolves around Eleanor’s relationship with her estranged sister Ivy. Like the “multimedia” approach Semple employed in her first book, in the middle of this one there is a 16-page, full-color graphic memoir about the childhood of Eleanor and Ivy, supposedly created by Eleanor, a former animator. [In actuality, the charming illustrations were done by the artist Eric Chase Anderson.]
Eleanor is four years older than Ivy and basically raised Ivy by herself, which is the only explanation to this reader why she continued to put up with Ivy’s reprehensible behavior. Although this entire novel takes place in one day, throughout it Eleanor has cause to reflect upon past events, which is how we gradually learn what happened with Ivy and why they no longer communicate.
The ending gives Timby the last word on how their life may turn out after this very full day.
Discussion: As with Semple’s first book, she goes off on very clever riffs parodying many aspects of her life in Seattle, from the private schools to Costco to the evolution of marriage:
“Somewhere along the way… my marriage turned into an LLC. . . . Joe and I became two adults joined in the business of raising a child. When we first met, I’d have gone anywhere with the guy. . . We got married,and of course I thought, This is what life is. But it wasn’t life. It was youth. And now it’s Joe going to jazz by himself and me cracking jokes about how cold and erratic I’ve become.”
She gives a quick and cogent analysis of what it’s like to be the adult child of an alcoholic, as Eleanor is:
“…it means you blame yourself for everything, you avoid reality, you can’t trust people, you’re hungry to please. Which isn’t all bad: perfectionism makes the straight-A student; lack of trust begets self-sufficiency; low self-esteem can be a terrific motivator; if everyone were so gung-ho on reality, there’d be no art.”
Eleanor fears Joe is having an affair, and provides a good summary of the emotions one might feel in that situation. She talks about how underneath the anger is fear, and underneath fear is love: “Everything came down to the terror of losing what you love.”
Evaluation: This book isn’t as amusing as the first book; there is more focus on unhappiness, and on the hypocritical and fickle nature of humankind. Nevertheless, it is imaginative, and often funny. But because Eleanor is so self-absorbed (one of the traits she hopes to correct when she promises “Today will be different. Today I will be present”), it’s hard to warm up to her. Further, her devotion to Ivy requires a belief that the primacy of blood bonds can overcome the most egregious of hurtful practices, which is a bit hard to swallow in this case.
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2016