Maria Semple’s second novel, Where’d You Go Bernadette, was an international bestseller, the kind of publishing phenomenon that would be difficult for anyone to replicate. (I’ve seen it on bestseller walls in bookstores all over the country and in airports all over the world.) Something about Semple’s novel appealed to a huge swath of the reading population. Perhaps it had something to do with the title character’s hilarious distaste for Seattle, which was at that time just becoming recognized as the most up-and-coming city in the country.
Semple’s gift for comedic writing — she got her start writing for sitcoms like Mad About You and Arrested Development — ensured that the wealthy Bernadette’s loathing for Seattle’s passive aggressive, mealy-mouthed commitment for manners never got too caustic. The book wobbled in the realm between unhinged Yelp rant and compassionate study of a woman who was barely keeping it together. As Bernadette came to accept herself, she also grew to accept Seattle. Something about that acceptance spoke to millions of readers around the world.
And now Semple’s follow-up to Bernadette has arrived. It’s a novel titled Today Will Be Different. And there’s no way to ignore this: it’s about a wealthy woman who lives in Seattle but hates it. Different is the story of Eleanor Flood, a woman who, like Semple, lives in downtown Seattle with a long-term partner and a child. Local celebrities like Pete Carroll and Ken Jennings show up, along with barbs about Jazz Alley’s “oily hummus” and Seattle’s nouveau riche helicopter parents. One day, Eleanor’s son, Timby, comes down with a stomach ache, requiring her to pick him up at school. It just happens to be the day that Eleanor’s life comes apart — she suspects her celebrity hand-surgeon husband of having an affair, and memories of her long-lost sister begin to consume her psyche.
There are plenty of differences between Bernadette and Different: While Bernadette reached across continents over a span of months, Different takes place over the course of a single day. Semple’s newest book contains a few pages of full-color comics (beautifully drawn by Eric Chase Anderson) and some other drawings by members of Semple’s family. And the book isn’t consumed by its hatred for the city: instead, that discomfort and distaste is more of a low-level fever in the background. But these differences aren’t enough to wholly uncouple Different from Bernadette; it’s a moodier, nastier little sister.
Eleanor is not as likable as Bernadette. It’s not my job description to predict what that means for the new book’s international sales appeal, but as a reader it made Different interesting in a prickly way. Just because Eleanor is almost obsessively introverted and ridiculously wealthy (in an early scene, she buys all of cartoonist Dan Clowes’s portfolio without a second thought) doesn’t mean she’s not worthy of our sympathy, but it does make that sympathy more difficult to muster. She steals things. She’s quite nearly a pathological liar. At some points in the book, she should have her child forcibly removed from her care.
Still, Different is very funny. Part of that comedy comes from the observational skewering of Seattle’s manners — Costco shoppers are put on blast — but more of the book is given over to class comedy (at one point, when Eleanor mentions that a book deal she had has fallen through, her son exclaims “Oh, no!” and then asks, worriedly, “Are we poor?”) and the situational humor of Eleanor not understanding the harried mess she’s presenting to the world. It’s crueler than Bernadette, but possibly funnier.
But it’s also, frankly, kind of a mess. One character — a poet Eleanor pays to teach her about poetry — feels crammed in as an all-purpose plot device. The central plot about a marital misunderstanding at times feels cheesy and comes to a problematic conclusion. A flashback about a third of the way through the book puts the brakes on the propulsive story of Eleanor’s day and then goes on for way too long. Some of the Seattle references and angry rants — particularly one about multiculturalism in the arts — feel unnecessary, and pasted-in.
Is it a coincidence, then, that this mean little sister of a book is about what it means to love an unlovable sibling? I don’t imagine that it can be; Semple is too smart, and too self-aware, a writer to not make that connection. The book builds to a conclusion that will break unsuspecting readers in half with its raw humanity and aching need. The ending of Different moved me in a way that Bernadette did not. It’s the difficult-to-love ones that cut you the deepest.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant