front cover of This Time Tomorrow novel by Emma StraubSee how This Time Tomorrow hits Blake Snyder’s 15 story beats!

Written by: Emma Straub
Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House
May 2022
320 pages (hardcover)

Genre: Out of the Bottle

In Emma Straub’s latest New York Times bestseller, This Time Tomorrow, a 2022 Goodreads Choice Award nominee for best fiction, protagonist Alice Stern finds herself with a most unusual dilemma.

From the publisher:
What if you could take a vacation to your past?
On the eve of her 40th birthday, Alice’s life isn’t terrible. She likes her job, even if it isn’t exactly the one she expected. She’s happy with her apartment, her romantic status, her independence, and she adores her lifelong best friend. But her father is ailing, and it feels to her as if something is missing. When she wakes up the next morning she finds herself back in 1996, reliving her 16th birthday. But it isn’t just her adolescent body that shocks her, or seeing her high school crush, it’s her dad: the vital, charming, 40-something version of her father with whom she is reunited. Now armed with a new perspective on her own life and his, some past events take on new meaning. Is there anything that she would change if she could?

I was utterly charmed by this book. It was, in fact, one of my favorite reads of last year. Good Housekeeping encapsulated the heart of the novel very well: “Unlike other time travel stories, this one’s not about figuring out how to get back to the present but how to appreciate it when you do.”

Emma Straub, daughter of the late horror and suspense writer Peter Straub, brings considerable insight to father-daughter relationships and to this beautifully written, thought-provoking tale of self-discoveryโ€ฆ with the help of a little time-traveling magic. There’s nothing like a clear-eyed view of one’s past for evaluating what would make the best New Year’s resolutions, right? If you haven’t already devoured Straub’s latest, consider adding this novel to your list of to-read books for 2023.

Opening Image (pp. 1-7): A week before her 40th birthday, Alice is at the hospital with her father, successful sci-fi author Leonard Stern, and he’s mostly unresponsive. She’s not sure when he’ll die, but she knows it’s inevitable.

Set-Up (pp. 1-64): If stasis = death, Alice is nearly as comatose in her present-day life as her dying father. She’s merely existing, not living. Her mother, who’d left her and Leonard when Alice was just 6, is emotionally distant. And while her father was always a devoted single dad, Alice was often left to parent herself.

Her boyfriend Matt is good enough to date, but not someone she’d want to live with, let alone actually marry. She earned a degree in painting from an art school but didn’t pursue her passion for it. Instead, she’s worked for years in the admissions office of the private school she once attended, sometimes dealing with former classmates (like her high-school crush Tommy), who are now married to other people and trying to get their children into the school.

She still lives in the same city, in the same apartment even, and has the same job. In every way, her own life is stagnant, and she takes the path of least resistance with almost everything. Her best friend Samantha (“Sam”) is now a married mom with three kids. She and Alice are still close, but they lead very different lives.

Theme Stated (p. 48 and p. 58): This is a novel rich in themes, and a number of them are in motion throughout each chapter. There is a constant dichotomy at work between following rules and playing things by ear—trying to determine which method will get the “better” result. Melinda, Alice’s boss at the school, is retiring soon. Of her replacement, Melinda tells Alice that this woman will be a better mentor to her. “I was always just making it up as I went along.” Pairing this comment with an observation from Alice’s father at the hospital a few pages later adds further insight. He remarks on his lax parental style by saying, “Next time, we’ll have more rules. For both of us.”

Alice, ultimately, has often been left to mentor herself and to figure out how to grow up. This upcoming exercise in time travel will give her an opportunity to repeat (and repeat) the lessons until she can come to her own conclusions about how to live in the world and move forward after her father’s death.

Deeper into the story, Melinda (as a young school administrator) counsels teenage Alice during her first time-travel venture. Alice asks her, “How do you know which choices matter…?” (p. 111) Melinda replies that most choices aren’t permanent. “Everything matters. But you can change your mind. Almost always.” She goes on to add, “But I will tell you, in terms of a life plan, you don’t need one. That’s my advice. It’s real life. It’s your real life. Plans don’t work. Just go with it.”

Catalyst (pp. 65-73): After a series of birthday celebrations that include a proposal from Matt, which she turns down (to the relief of them both), and a quick evening get together with Sam, where they reminisce about Alice’s 16th birthday bash, Alice is drunk and in need of a nearby place to crash. She heads to her father’s empty house but can’t find her key, so she falls asleep in the small guardhouse/potting shed outside, only to wake up in her childhood bedroom the next morning. At first, she thinks she’d managed to find her way in during the night. But Alice quickly realizes it’s no longer the present day. It is, instead, the morning of her 16th birthday in the 1990s. Her father is healthy and in the house with her, and both of them are 24 years younger.

Debate (pp. 74-82): Alice struggles with the reality of this time-traveling episode, disbelieving she could actually be 16 again and that her father could be so young and vibrant. She thinks it must be some kind of lucid dream. After all, she’d grown up with two imaginary time-traveling brothers as her only siblings (the literary creations of her dad in his famous novel, Time Brothers, which was so popular it even became a hit TV series), so this experience is likely just a fantasy. Regardless, being this age again is forcing Alice to look at herself and her life choices anew. After talking with her best friend Sam, however, Alice is forced to accept that it’s all real. She’s actually in her teen body again.

Break into Two (p. 83): Alice literally enters the upside-down world of her teenage life, thanks to the magic of time travel. She must compare and contrast countless elements belonging to her two lives, from the mundane to the profound.

B Story (pp. 83-88): Through her interactions with her father Leonard in both timelines, Alice will eventually come to understand some of the thematic issues surrounding the making of choices and figuring out what matters. This happens as she re-experiences her relationship with him, views his health and his (often poor) diet/fitness habits, and observes with grown-up eyes all the things that led him to the state he’s in during Alice’s adult life.

Fun and Games (pp. 89-152): The promise of the premise is explored through locations around New York City in a loving tribute to Alice’s—and the author’s—favorite haunts. We see Alice interacting with the world of her youth, including her family and friends, high school boys she knew and/or was attracted to, and the technology of 1996. There’s SAT prep class, which she hates, alongside the many restaurants and museums she loves. There’s her big party and all the nineties pop culture. She notices, “It was another century. It hadn’t felt like it at the time, but it was.”

There are so many costumes, codes, habits, and secrets in the life of a teenage girl. She confides the truth to Sam, both because Alice needs her help navigating the era and because Alice is convinced that if she’d only made a few different choices as a teen, her present-day existence as a 40-year-old would be better. The one thing Alice and Sam are convinced of is that time travel isn’t a pointless endeavor. There must be a reason why she’s here now.

Midpoint (pp. 152-156): Alice believes that the night of her 16th birthday party, which is currently in progress in her past timeline, was the place when things had gone off the rails for her. She believes that if she could just fix one thing—her decision not to act on her feelings for high-school crush Tommy—that change alone would positively alter the trajectory of her life. So, at her party, instead of watching as Tommy hooks up with another girl, Alice takes the initiative and (false victory)  chooses to sleep with him.

Bad Guys Close In (pp. 157-226): Now that Alice has slept with the “guy who got away” and has finally resolved that longstanding regret, she’s desperate to solve the time-travel riddle with Sam’s help. The two of them, with Tommy tagging along, go to the NYC hotel that’s hosting a big science fiction and fantasy convention. Her father Leonard is staying there for the night because he’s one of the guest speakers.

As she tries to locate her dad, Alice has conversations with multiple people who are involved in the sci-fi/fantasy industry, many of whom have theories on time travel. She’s trying to figure out why she ended up in the past and how to get back to her future. It’s not as straightforward as it is in the movies, plus, what will have changed as a result of her one-day visit to the past? Turns out, quite a few things, but she doesn’t know that yet, and none of the results will be as satisfying as she’d hoped.

Alice confides in her father that she has time traveled back to this day and, surprisingly, he believes her. Why? Because he’s done it, too! As they take both of her friends home, Alice whispers to Tommy that he should marry her after college. She wants “to push her hands against the walls of her life and see if they would move.” Then she and her father return to his house and they talk.

She learns that the guardhouse is the secret location and between 3:00 AM and 4:00 AM is the magical time. Leonard reveals that his time-travel experiences all involved going back to the same day—the day Alice was born. “The good news,” he tells her, “is that life is pretty sticky. It’s hard to change things too much.” But she still gets him to promise to stop smoking, which he says he’ll try to do.

She finally falls asleep and then awakens back into her old life. Only, it isn’t quite the same. She’s 40 again, but married to Tommy in this future timeline, the mother of two small children, and living with them all in a very pricey place. But it’s soon clear that their marriage isn’t quite the utopian love story she’d hoped, she doesn’t see her BFF Sam as often, her dad is unconscious in the hospital anyway, despite having stopped smoking, and he’s surprisingly remarried to a woman named Debbie.

At the 40th birthday bash that Tommy hosts for Alice, she discovers that in this alternate reality her dad had written another time travel book, Dawn of Time, and that this novel might shed some light on her situation. She takes the book and bolts from her own party.

All Is Lost (pp. 227-233): Alice runs away and ends up at sitting in front of a fortune teller—asking to be told her future and wanting to know if she’s living the right life. She gets the tarot card, the Fool, meaning someone who’s “always starting from nothing, from innocence, from a blank slate.” The fortune teller explains to Alice that it’s all about beginning fresh, that the journey is what changes the person.

Alice is frustrated with this strange life she created, and now husband Tommy is angry with her and tracking her location. Whiff of death for her imagined perfect life. She continues to run away from him and this version of her world.

Dark Night of the Soul (pp. 234-238): She hides out in her dad’s home and reads Dawn of Time cover to cover, searching this newfound second novel for hidden messages from Leonard. She realizes, in a moment of clarity as she reads, that this book is different from her father’s adventurous first novel. This story is about the love between a single parent and their only child. A secret, earnest, book-length letter from Leonard to Alice—expressing himself through fiction in ways he never would have aloud about his love for his daughter.

Break into Three (pp. 239): In her big moment of decision, Alice decides she’s willing to give up another day of her future to go back in time again to when she was 16. This time, though, she’s going back on purpose.

Finale (pp. 240-302): Alice slips back into the guardhouse and, in a Groundhog’s Day-esque literary montage, she tries all sorts of variations on her past, in hopes of figuring out just the right sequence of events that will prevent her father’s death. However, when she’s honest with herself, she recognizes she’s also escaping into the past to visit herself at age 16. The novel’s themes are underscored here—particularly “everything matters, but nothing is fixed”—and she needs to come to terms, philosophically, with this, too: “The way you spend your days is the way you spend your life.”

She has an important conversation with her dad in the present day when he tells her that “It’s not about the time. It’s about how you spend it. Where you put your energy.” Leonard admits that going back in time so often to re-experience the day Alice was born was special to him for one big reason: the moment he became a father was when he felt he became the best version of himself. Alice feels this about herself, too. That, on her 16th birthday, she’d been the most comfortable in her own skin, surrounded by the love of her father and her friendship with Sam.

Alice also discovers that it’s the time travel itself that has been causing her dad to age so rapidly. More than his smoking, lack of exercise, or bad dietary habits, Leonard’s excessive trips back and forth through time have taken their toll on his body. Even just going back for 14 days’ worth of birthdays has caused Alice’s body to ache and age prematurely. She knows she needs to stop.

On her final trip back into the past, Alice does something she’s never done before. She calls her dad after her birthday bash ends to say “good night” to him, hoping that Leonard’s words about love not vanishing (that it’s still inside of us and in everything we do) are true and that he can feel how much she loves him. Then she returns to her 40-year-old self for good, willing to deal with whatever the present has become for her.

Final Image (pp. 303-307): Her father passes away peacefully at home, with Alice, her stepmother Debbie, and their kind caregiver by his side. Alice feels the support from her best friend Sam, who also helps to connect her with another boy she’d liked in high school—someone who might be a potential love interest, now that she’s no longer so stagnant in her life.

“Any story could be a comedy or a tragedy, depending on where you ended it,” Alice observes. “That was the magic, how the same story could be told an infinite number of ways.” Despite her grief, she’s feeling hopeful and is finally ready to face her future.

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