Time travel is fun when you’re not bound by the constraints of story structure.
This Time Tomorrow (though it takes a while to get going) is a delightful and quick read, borrowing some of its world-building from nostalgic time-traveling pop culture fan favorites, such as Groundhog Day, Back to the Future, and Peggy Sue Got Married.
Because it borrows from the zeitgeist of movies from the 80s and 90s (half of Time itself takes place in 1996 Manhattan), there’s not a lot of time wasted (pun intended) on world-building or setting up the rules of time travel.
Instead, its plot is driven by character studies, ambiance, and great prose.
‘This Time Tomorrow’ Synopsis
The following is a synopsis of the first half of This Time Tomorrow. If you don’t want any spoilers, please jump ahead to the review.
This Time Tomorrow takes place in two separate timelines: 1996 and 2020.
Alice spends the eve of her 40th birthday celebrating with her best friend Sam and then getting drunk (sort of by herself) in a bar where she and her high school friends used to frequent (because the bouncers didn’t always card).
Her father is in a hospice, slowly dying; she recently shot down her cute but bumbling boyfriend’s marriage proposal; and her high school crush (the one that got away) has moved back to the neighborhood and has her wondering “what if”?
After spending a few more hours than she’d planned at the bar, she heads Uptown to her father’s empty house on the charming Pomander Walk (an actual micro street of carriage houses converted into apartments in Manhattan’s Upper East Side).
Too drunk to find her way inside the apartment, she ends up passing out in a small shed on the property. And when she wakes up…
She’s 16, her father is alive, and it’s once again the eve of her birthday.
Alice spends most of “Part Two” soaking in her father’s presence. Like in many of Straub’s previous novels, nostalgia and savoring play a big role in This Time Tomorrow. Though there are no long, languishing food descriptions as there were in The Vacationers and Modern Lovers (Straub only gives us a description of Alice’s father’s beloved Grape-Nuts Cereal, which Alice herself calls, “the parts that got leftover when they were making good cereal.”).
Yet, what Time lacks in mouth-watering food writing, it makes up for in beautiful epitaphs of everyday life. The sound of Alice’s father Leonard shuffling around the apartment. His toothbrush jangling as he drops it into its cup.
“Maybe that was the trick to life: to notice all the tiny moments in the day when everything else fell away and, for a split second, or maybe even a few seconds, you had no worries, only pleasure, only appreciation of what was right in front of you. Transcendental meditation, maybe, but with hot dogs and the knowledge that everything would change, the good and the bad, and so you might as well appreciate the good.”
She gets a second chance at appreciating her body, her skin, her youth. While she may have appreciated her appearance as she grew older, she could never have appreciated her 16-year-old body as much as her 40-year-old self did.
And isn’t that true for all of us?
Alice spends her 16th birthday doing the same stuff she did the first time around. She just appreciates it more. Some stuff changes slightly, and she goes totally off-book later in the night, opting to spend time with her father instead of getting drunk and high at her party.
“Maybe that was the trick to life: to notice all the tiny moments in the day when everything else fell away and, for a split second, or maybe even a few seconds, you had no worries, only pleasure, only appreciation of what was right in front of you.”
Sidebar: did I mention Alice’s father Leonard is a cult sci-fi author, whose series, The Time Brothers, has been adapted into a long-running TV series?
Alice wakes up the next day and it’s 2020 again. Except her life is different because she made different choices on her 16th birthday. She’s rich and married, and she’s the type of person who goes running for fun.
So she tries again.
Throughout the book, Alice time travels umpteen-many times, trying to find out which combination of alterations will keep Leonard from dying while also holding onto the good changes she’s made.
‘This Time Tomorrow’ Book Review
This Time Tomorrow deals with themes, such as wasted time, making time for the things that really matter, and staying in the present as much as possible (despite the fact the protagonist spends more than half of the book in either the past or the future).
As someone who is about to turn 41 (and spent the last few years of her 30s stuck in pandemic lockdown), wasted time is a theme that’s not lost on me.
I also am someone who spends a lot of time getting teary-eyed at the idea that someday I’ll inevitably lose my parents. Holding onto the idea that they’ll be gone someday and they currently drive me crazy and I love them is something that I grapple with on a daily basis.
As Alice’s first jump back into the past doesn’t happen until about page 75, I felt like I was waiting a while for the book to actually “start”, ( though one-quarter of the way into the book does make sense structure-wise to enter the “fantastical world”).
The opening meandered a little too long, and I didn’t feel we needed to spend so much time with
Alice’s ho-hum 2020 boyfriend, as he doesn’t appear at all later in the story.
Is ‘This Time Tomorrow’ a good book?
‘This Time Tomorrow’ Highs
About half of the novel takes place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1996 — a time and place that has a specific feel. You can feel the stickiness of Matryoshka Bar, which felt a little more like a bar of the East Village’s past than the Upper West Side’s.
As someone who’s only a year younger than the protagonist, going to high school throughout the mid-to-late 90s is a bit of nostalgia that comes with its own costume change. The baggy pants, the midriffs, the thin brows.
What I didn’t experience (and something most readers also probably haven’t) was going to an elite Upper West Side private school. City kids are subject to a whole other set of rules than those imposed on us who grew up in the burbs or rural America.
They could go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted. They could smoke and drink freely, as the odds of running into an adult they knew in Manhattan were slim-to-none. And since most of them were rich (and not subject to many rules at all), they could get away with stuff even if they were caught.
Because Alice also travels to a 2020 alternate reality where she’s living in the exclusive San Remo apartment building, we also get a voyeuristic view of what it’s like to suddenly own racks of feathered, silk, and satin dresses. We get to experience what it’s like to suddenly, at the age of 40, have two children you don’t remember giving birth to (and know in your bones it’s not for you).
We get to see what it’s like to live in a gated, exclusive community like Pomander Walk (or something similar, like the Mews in the Village).
But probably most importantly, we get to see what it’s like to lose a parent, without actually losing one ourselves. We get to see what parts are really important, and we get to savor those moments that bring simple joys (like the toothbrush jingling in its cup and the Grape-Nuts pouring into their bowl) along with Alice.
‘This Time Tomorrow’ Critiques
The pacing of This Time Tomorrow was a little off for me. But as a book about time travel, maybe that was the point?
It took a little too long to “get going”.
“Part Two” felt nicely paced, but this is where the narrative starts loosening for me.
There was a whole scene with a fortune teller that felt a little forced, and it slowed down the pacing of an otherwise suspenseful scene.
I loved the idea that Alice visits a fortune teller since she already “knows” her future (though not really since she’s also continually changing her past). I also love that the fortune teller wasn’t a stereotype or a cliche.
But overall the dialogue didn’t do it for me.
And while there was a lot of thematic stuff packed into that scene, it didn’t really feel cohesive overall.
In “Part Four”, Straub really lost me.
This is where Alice starts time jumping back and forth, realizing she can control the events of 2020 (and beyond) by simply changing the events of her 16th birthday. At this point, there are only about 60 pages left in the book, so it makes sense she wouldn’t really dwell on each jump for more than a sentence or fragment.
Yet, while “Part One” felt like it dragged on for too long, “Part Four” felt overly rushed, which pulled me out of the narrative.
‘This Time Tomorrow’ Recommendation
Do you love Emma Straub? Do you enjoy reading character-driven narratives? Do you get a kick out of pretty little wisdom-infused soundbites?
Then you’re gonna like This Time Tomorrow.
While its story structure isn’t as strong as The Vacationers’ or Modern Lovers’, its descriptions are lovely, and its theme of savoring the present moment is one that should be spread far and wide.
I loved spending time on Pomander Walk, in 1996 Manhattan, and everywhere in between. I read a lion’s share of the novel during a day trip to NYC, and its Manhattan nostalgia made me a little homesick for living in the Big Apple.
One of the most important questions I ask myself before starting a novel is, “Do you want to spend hours of your life in this world?”
And the answer to that question for This Time Tomorrow is a resounding, “Yes!” And I’d do it again, too.