Friday, November 4, 2022

Emma Straub: This Time Tomorrow


Time travel books and movies fascinate me. They always have. I love the anachronisms--the modern coin in Christopher Reeve's pocket in Somewhere in Time that sends him back, the Exxon map in the Wild West that baffles the locals as much as the rider's motorcycle in a movie from the 70s or 80s whose title I have forgotten. Stephen King's November 22, 1963 made me anxious when knowledge from the present world came into contact or conflict with the past. 

Emma Straub's recent novel This Time Tomorrow sets up the best kind of time travel suspense. Her protagonist Alice Stern (an art major like the last novel character I met) is not living the life she anticipated. Just turning forty, she's single, but not eager for her younger boyfriend to pop the question. After her mother left to explore her own new age interests, Alice was raised by her father, famous for writing Time Brothers, a cult favorite time travel novel that went on to inspire a popular TV series. As the novel opens, Alice's father is hospitalized with a less-than-hopeful prognosis. 

She is working at Belvedere, the same exclusive Manhattan prep school she attended in high school and visiting her father in the hospital when she is off work. After a birthday celebration with her long-time best friend Samantha, cut short by an emergency in home with one of Sam's children, Alice stops for drinks--too many drinks--and heads to her childhood home instead of returning to her apartment. 

[Spoiler alert!] When she wakes in her childhood bedroom on her sixteenth birthday, she begins a cycle of return visits. Exploring what her father's friends refer to as the "Baby Hitler" paradox--if you go back in time and kill baby Hitler, how will the future be changed?--Alice finds that small things she does or says in her past have sometimes unanticipated changes in the future.

For me, the greatest suspense in these novels comes when the characters arrive in a life for which they are unprepared, sometimes with a different family or career, and they have to bluff their way through until putting the pieces together. Most recently, I'd read Oona out of Order, another book with a time-traveling birthday girl, always landing in a different year of her life, sometimes more aware of the future than the immediate past.

In This Time Tomorrow, Straub maintains the suspense and the threads of the story, creating a portrait of love and friendship. The novel may leave readers wondering what they would change if they had one chance--or many--for a do-over.


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