“This Time Tomorrow” by Emma Straub

This book is more of a tribute to the author’s father than a novel as such. Although it does have a story, one involving time-travel, no less! This might seem like a strange combination, but it works. This Time Tomorrow may not be a book that you pick up for “entertainment,” but it is sweet and wise and poignant. I was glad to have read it.

First, some context. I was in Brooklyn recently and came across the bookstore, “Books Are Magic,” which I found out was owned by Emma Straub. While I was familiar with her name, I had not read any of her books. It was only after visiting the bookstore did I learn that she was the daughter of the author, Peter Straub, a prolific writer of horror and supernatural fiction, who had just died. I had not read any of his books either, but I was awed by this father-daughter connection. She had not just inherited her father’s literary talents but had also been so inspired by her father’s career as a novelist that she had chosen to follow the same path. That was amazing, especially because it is not that common in the literary world — most writers’ kids do not become writers themselves.

This Time Tomorrow is Emma Straub’s most recent book, and it is focused on the relationship between a father, who is also a writer, and his adult daughter. The parallels between the book and the real-life relationship between the author and her father are self-evident, and they reflect the deep love that the two shared. I could not read the book without always seeing the author, Emma Straub, in the protagonist, and her father, Peter Straub, in the protagonist’s father.

The protagonist of This Time Tomorrow is Alice, a 40-year-old woman, who is single, independent, has a good job, and a lifestyle she enjoys – except for the fact that her father, Leonard, is in the hospital and is slowly dying. Leonard is a writer, and he has authored a time-travel novel which has become wildly successful, with movie and TV adaptations galore. Thus, there were never any financial difficulties for Alice growing up, and apart from her mother leaving them, she had no real issues. She was always extremely close to her father, which is why seeing him now hovering on the brink of death is devastating to her.

On the night of her 40th birthday, after celebrating with her best friend at a bar, Alice happens to go to her father’s house instead of going home as it is closer and she is too drunk to take the subway home. She doesn’t have a key to the house, so she takes refuge in the garden shed, falls asleep, and wakes up on the eve of her sixteenth birthday! It turns out that the garden shed has a portal to time-travel which is only active between 3 to 4 in the middle of the night, and she happened to be there at that time, which is why she time-traveled. While she cannot believe that this is something that can actually happen in real life rather than just in the time-travel fiction that authors like her father wrote, she is thrilled to be back at a time when her father is alive and well. They spend a wonderful day together, and she has the trippy 16th birthday party at night with her high-school friends that she remembers, only this time she ends up sleeping with her high-school crush which she didn’t do when she was actually 16. When she falls asleep and wakes up, she is back to her current 40-year-old self, only this time, she is now married to that high-school crush and has two kids!

But her father, sadly, is still ailing and still in the hospital.

When she had time-traveled to when she was 16, she confided what had happened to her father, and he told her about the time-travel portal in the garden shed. (It turns out that he had been using it too, to keep returning to the day she was born. Apparently, it can only take you back to the one most momentous day of your past.) Now that she knows how to get back to that day of her 16th birthday, she time-travels again, this time with a view to persuading her father to eat healthier and quit smoking, hoping that he is not sick and dying when she is 40. That doesn’t quite work – her father is still sick when she returns to her 40-year-old self – but now she is in the version of her life where he has remarried a nice woman, Deborah, who is helping to take care of him.

Alice does the time-travel a couple of more times before realizing that you can’t always go back and change something in your past to create a desired outcome in your present, and that while the consequences of actions do create a ripple effect, they cannot be guided, let alone predicted. There will always be unintended consequences to every action. She eventually stops trying to get back to when she was 16 and just stays in one of the versions that she comes to as a 40-year-old, one in which her father is still dying, but at home rather than in a hospital. He has still remarried Deborah, who is with him till the end and who is there to work with Alice on the funeral arrangements after his death. Alice is still single in this version of her life, but she has a better job and a better apartment.

The essence of This Time Tomorrow was not really time-travel but rather, the love between a father and a daughter. The time-travel was certainly an innovative way of capturing it, and along the way, it does provide some insights on philosophical questions like to what extent we can control our lives, whether we can hold on to something we love or is it better to let it go, and above all, the importance of cherishing what we have when we have it as you never know how long it will last. But ultimately, I saw the book as an ode to Emma Straub’s love for her father, Peter Straub. I can’t think of a better way for a writer to honor her father, who was also a writer.  

This Time Tomorrow
Author: Emma Straub
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: May 2022

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

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