The Two Sides of Semple

3730554This One Is Mine
Maria Semple
© 2008
289 pages (hardcover)

Last week, Dr. Timothy Jay, “a psychologist and expert in swearing,” appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, talking about how kids “suck up swear words” like vacuum cleaners. Here is the transcript.

Dr. Jay isn’t lobbying for parents to wash their kids’ mouths out with soap; he doesn’t think that parents should make certain words taboo. Instead, he suggests that it is a parent’s job to teach a kid the nuances of the language (for example, it’s appropriate to say certain things only in certain places, like “in the house or in the backyard”) and “to teach them how to manage their emotions, and the language is just part of that.” Viewing certain words as “bad language” or “dirty words” prevents acknowledgement of their beneficial uses (“their use in humor, their use in bonding, their use as relief from pain or venting frustration”).

As soon as I heard this story, I went online to read the outraged comments—I suspected there would be lots, and I was not disappointed.  There are many impassioned commenters on both sides. You have the “profanity is the attempt of a lazy and feeble mind to express itself forcefully” school on one side and the “they’re just words” school on the other. One guy writes, “It’s a pretty sad comment on society when people get more upset over naughty language than genocide,” to which a woman responds, “The people that I know that use really bad language don’t care about genocide or a lot of other things outside of their little world.”

I have no intention of jumping in that ring, but it is safe to say that I am in the “they’re just words” school. Aside from hate speech, “bad” words don’t make me cringe. I recognize the power (for good and bad) that profanity holds. But, for me, it’s words like “panties” and “moist” that give me the spine tingles.

That said, I know and try to be sensitive to the fact that there are a lot of people who are in the “profanity is the attempt of a lazy and feeble mind to express itself forcefully” school of thought (like my good friend Jake, who made this argument to me just a few weeks ago) and who get very turned off by the use of profanity under any circumstance. So, when I’m reading a book, I try to keep in mind that certain language that is not offensive to me (language that I often find quite funny) might be very offensive to others.

Take this passage from This One is Mine by Maria Semple. Dramatic bridezilla Sally is in her bridal suite, getting ready for her wedding with her hair and make-up crew:

“Everybody’s treating me like I’m a C-U Next Tuesday.”

“A what?”

“A C-U Next Tuesday,” Sally whispered. “Spell it out.”

“A cunt? Darling, just say it. A cunt.”

For many, the “power-C word” is the most offensive word in the English language. Even when used humorously (as it is here), it offends. I recognize that this word holds so much power that there are many people who would be turned off by the book as a whole by this short passage.

If you happen to be one of those people, I offer this suggestion: steer clear of this book, because that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Author Maria Semple is obviously with me in the “they’re just words” school. In fact, that passage is pretty tame compared to some of the other situations and interactions in the book. 

This One Is Mine largely follows two unhappy women, sisters-in-law Violet and Sally. Violet is a middle-aged, plump, bored housewife with a toddler. She’s married to the uber-rich David Parry, a famous and successful music producer. She loves Stephen Sondheim, grew up rich (she’s “a snob masquerading as a nice person”), and spends her husband’s money freely and lavishly. Sally is David’s younger sister and a bit of a mess. She’s a type-1 diabetic who lost part of a toe (and subsequently her career as a ballerina) to the disease. She is an unapologetic gold-digger, who is suffering from massive amounts of credit-card debt, and is trying to find a rich husband to take care of her. Neither Violet nor Sally realizes how horrible or unlikeable or unreasonable she is.  The book follows their follies and transgressions and encourages you to laugh at them in a “That’s schadenfreude!” kind of way.

Rating: 3/5

This One Is Mine is the first book by Maria Semple, author of the hugely popular and very enjoyable Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Bernadette is cute and playful and creative. The characters are likeable and whimsical and weird. It’s no surprise, therefore, that, if you look at the one- and two-star Amazon reviews for this book, you will see a lot of “I got this book because I loved Where’d You Go Bernadette” and “I am a huge fan of Where’d You Go, Bernadette” followed by comments about how horrible This One Is Mine is because of the awful (“shallow, self-centered, greedy,” “boring or unlikable,” “horrible, selfish, manipulative”) characters. And, they’re right: the characters in This One Is Mine are intentionally unlikeable and pathetic and sad. They make horrible decisions. They do stupid, wrong, and downright mean things.

And they’re even more unlikeable because they get themselves into some really bad (and intentionally shocking) situations (NOTE: if that “C-U Next Tuesday” passage was too much for you, you might want to just skip over these bullet points):

  • A fifteen-year-old groupie throws up while giving a member of Def Leppard oral sex, licks up her own vomit, and is subsequently given the nickname “Bar Feeder” (say it out loud, and you’ll get it).
  • A ridiculously wealthy, WASP-y housewife has an affair with an alcoholic/drug addict with hepatitis-C who is using her for her money and who turns her on by talking dirty (very dirty) to her.
  • A woman has an abortion (her third) because she thinks her husband has Asperger’s Syndrome and doesn’t want her kid to be “retarded.” 

It’s easy to see how Semple’s use of “bad” words, unlikeable characters, and provocative situations would be shocking if you’re expecting a book like Bernadette. In fact, I have a feeling a lot of the negative reviews are due, at least in part, to misplaced expectations.

Bernadette represents Semple’s softer side. Ellen and Mad About You are on that side of the spectrum (Semple was a writer for both shows).  This One Is Mine represents the other side of the spectrum. It’s the biting, sometimes mean humor that is more like Arrested Development (for which Semple was both a writer and producer). I like both of Semple’s sides. But, overall (and despite the fact that I enjoyed the profanity and brash humor in This One Is Mine), I’d say Bernadette is by far the better book. Like Bernadette, This One Is Mine is a very quick read.  And, in parts, it is hilariously funny. But it’s not as creative or stylized as Bernadette, you can’t root for any of the characters (they really are that unlikeable), and the ending is rushed.

Who should read it: John (i.e., people who enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette, love Arrested Development, will appreciate the Stephen Sondheim references, and think that “inappropriate” humor is the very best kind).

Want to read along with me?  Reviews of these books are coming soon:

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4 thoughts on “The Two Sides of Semple

  1. And “cunt” is one of my favorite words!

  2. Thanks for liking my Semple review! Bernadette was my first read by her and so it’s interesting to hear about this other side of her. I don’t mind bad language when it’s done for a purpose/seems natural to the character but it does bother me when it feels like the author has thrown it in to shock me.

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