I am not even going to try to hide the fact that I loved Emma Straub’s novel This Time Tomorrow. Never mind that it takes place in New York City, a city I adore, never mind that it references all the great time travel movies (Peggy Sue Got Married, 13 Going on 30, Back to the Future), never mind that Sarah Michelle Gellar is mentioned, this novel would be fantastic even without those things.
Alice Stern is turning 40. She likes her life just fine, even if it hasn’t turned out exactly as she might have imagined. She has good friends, a sweet apartment, a boyfriend, a decent job in admissions at her old school. But her father, Leonard Stern, is currently ailing in the hospital “heavily pregnant with death” and because they are close – her mother skipped out early after “she’d had a self-actualized visit from her future consciousness” – Alice spends as much time with him as she can.
Leonard is the author of the cult classic Time Brothers, “a novel about two time-traveling brothers that had sold millions of copies and gone on to become a serialized television program that everyone watched”. She and her father had lived on Pomander Walk “a straight dash through the middle of the block, cutting from 94th to 95th Street between Broadway and West End […] with two rows of tiny houses that looked straight out of “Hansel and Gretel” locked behind a gate.”
On her 40th birthday, Alice gets drunk and ends up heading back to Pomander where she passes out in the little guardhouse and wakes up the next morning back in 1996, on the morning of her 16th birthday. It’s disconcerting because Alice was “herself, only herself, but she was both herself then and herself now. She was forty and she was sixteen.” And her father was young, “forty-nine years old. Less than a decade older than she was.”
This is an opportunity for a do-over. Perhaps she can convince Leonard to make healthier choices; perhaps she can treat herself a little more kindly because “Every second of her teenage years, Alice had thought that she was average. Average looks, average brain, average body[…] But what she saw in the mirror now made her burst into tears.”
Okay, a book about time travel logistically seems ridiculous so I didn’t spend too much time worrying about the physics/magic/science fiction of it. Instead, I paid attention to the things that Alice noticed as if for the first time. Like Emily in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, Alice begins to appreciate “every, every moment.”
In her acknowledgements, Straub thanks her father, acclaimed novelist Peter Straub, who died the same year this book was published – making the book just that much more poignant. She writes “thank you to my dad, for showing me what fiction could do, and for knowing that the real story is both here and not here, that we are both here and not here”.
This Time Tomorrow is full-hearted, life-affirming, and heartbreaking and I highly recommend it.