Post #113 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Matilda Butler
Fiction Meets Memoir
by Maria Semple
Review by Lanie Tankard
“Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody.
There is only one single way.
Go into yourself.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke
Letters to a Young Poet (#1, p. 16)
(M.D. Herter Norton, translator)
Just when you think you’ve seen all the possible ways to construct memoir, here comes a new one. Author Maria Semple has embedded a full-color fictional graphic memoir into her latest novel, Today Will Be Different. The memoir, titled The Flood Girls, portrays sisterhood in a subplot of the novel. Illustrator Eric Chase Anderson lovingly renders the memoir as scrapbook pages.
Eleanor Flood, the novel’s protagonist, captured the childhood she shared with her sister when she wrote the memoir, but she hasn’t thought about it in years. Then up it pops. Today, of all days. The day Eleanor Flood had resolved would be different—different because she had made a whole slew of resolutions before breakfast to get her life back on track. Little changes, like going to yoga, radiating calm, not swearing, buying local. Today Will Be Different certainly lives up to its title: The twenty-four hours depicted in this slim book are decidedly unlike any other day in Eleanor Flood’s existence, but definitely not in the ways she had envisioned.
She’s the former animation director of a TV show called Looper Wash in New York, who now lives a life fraying at the seams in Seattle—and it’s about to come all unraveled. Eleanor’s husband, Joe Wallace, is a hand surgeon for the Seattle Seahawks and might be having a midlife crisis of his own. Or not. Their third-grade son, Timby, experiments with wearing makeup while fending off a girl named Piper who’s bullying him about the brand names of his clothes. Their dog, Yo-Yo, trots along patiently awaiting a pat on the head from anybody.
Semple spices up the family drama with a supporting cast of fascinating characters. There’s Alonzo Wrenn, a poetry teacher helping Eleanor annotate Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Then we meet Timby’s perceptive pediatrician, Dr. Saba. Enter a lunch-determined woman named Sydney Madsen, whom Eleanor has been dodging for a decade. Spencer Martell is an artist who’d worked for Eleanor years ago and is now readying a show at the Seattle Art Museum after achieving acclaim at the Venice Biennale. We hear about Joyce Primm, the editor who acquired Eleanor’s graphic memoir a number of years ago. Whoa, and here’s John Tyler, tenth president of the United States, making an appearance. Barnaby “Bucky” Fanning is a krewe member of the Royal Court of Khaos in New Orleans. Plus there’s a long-lost relative we meet in flashbacks.
Into this mix, Semple tosses such themes as Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), sibling estrangement, introspection, aging regrets, LBGTQ issues, truth in memoir, a custody battle, medical training, religion, the bonds that hold marriages together, the bonds that drive families apart, and Costco taste samples. Nimbly she slips in amusing garnishes of technology: a concussion app, the TRACE ROUTE menu option on a GPS map, a GoDaddy bandana, AutoCorrect, and the Hubble Space Telescope. When Semple serves it all up, you will shake your head in delighted wonder.
Timby almost steals the show from his mother. He may not be the main character, but he captures some of the most winning plot turns in his lines, particularly about a gift basket that made me laugh out loud every time it appeared. Any story that can provoke chortles has got a lot going for it right there.
Yet Semple’s talent is being able to reach beyond satire to pull off poignant truths of the heart. By probing the color graphic memoir in her novel, Semple is able to dig into Eleanor’s childhood to portray her more deeply and show how she evolved from her family of origin. The memoir also symbolically represents the way Eleanor has walled off a particular era of her life.
Eleanor tells Timby the TV show she used to work on was “full of social satire and girl power.” One might actually describe all of Semple’s novels that way. Eleanor Flood is the third memorable protagonist to spring from the author’s fertile imagination. Eleanor shares certain traits with Violet Parry (from Semple’s first novel, This One Is Mine 2008) and Bernadette Fox (from Semple’s best-selling second novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, 2012, currently in the works as a movie directed by Richard Linklater and starring Cate Blanchett).
While the existential angst of each leading figure in Maria Semple’s novels is distinctly individual, there’s also an interconnection among all three due to their creator’s keen observations about contemporary society and women’s roles.
Semple set her first book in Los Angeles, where she was born, and the next two in Seattle, where she now lives. Parts of Today Will Be Different also occur in New Orleans, New York City, and Aspen. Semple employs irony, parody, and satire to lighten the impact of some of the heavy matters she juggles, but she does so with a minimalist touch. She thereby forces her readers to visualize a character’s inner life through their own self-reflections. By exaggerating her characters’ mannerisms, Semple highlights turbulent social changes through humor. Her two prior novels have worked in Asperger’s Syndrome, agoraphobia, diabetes, women in architecture, and Imposter Syndrome.
Semple plays with genre boundaries. She fashioned an epistolary in Where’d You Go, Bernadette to tell a story through a series of letters or documents. In Today Will Be Different, she incorporates a graphic memoir to offer visual elements. A number of women have combined words and pictures to tell their stories in these creative ways. Another combination some authors have tried is personal memoir and biography, as well as literary comic books and the meetup of manga with memoir.
Maria Semple has created a steady stream of refreshingly new ways to tell good stories that resonate. While Bernadette Fox remains Semple’s shining star, Eleanor Flood in Today Will Be Different is a fantastic addition to Maria Semple’s oeuvre.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.