What if you could go back in time to be with your elderly dying parent when they were young and healthy? Emma Straub turns this question into reality in her fifth and delightful novel, “This Time Tomorrow,” and though the book’s plot may sound like it’s based on a sci-fi gimmick, which it is, the deeper question it asks is: How do we talk with each other about things that really matter? That is, why do we wait until a loved one is dying before realizing we never found out who they really are?
The unassuming time explorer of “This Time Tomorrow” is 39-year-old New Yorker Alice Stern, who’s lived in the same Brooklyn studio since college and works at the same Upper West Side private school she attended in her youth. That is, not much in her life has changed. But now her father, Leonard, is in the hospital, dying of nothing in particular but everything in general. As Straub explains, “There were no tumors to excise, no germs to fight. It was just that many neighborhoods of Leonard’s body were falling apart in a great, unified chorus: his heart, his kidneys, his liver.”
On the day before she turns 40, Alice visits her father, goes to work, has dinner with her best friend, drinks tequila alone at a dive bar, falls asleep, and then wakes up in her childhood bedroom — on her 16th birthday. It’s 1996, and her father is in his 40s, smoking cigarettes and avoiding exercise as if he’ll live forever. And Alice isn’t sure what the heck is going on.
As it’s the mid ‘90s, with all the expected nostalgia — “Reality Bites” posters, Jordan Catalano references — Alice mentally scours time-travel movies from the era, such as “Back to the Future” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” in effort to understand what’s happened to her. She also thinks of “The Time Brothers,” her father’s famous novel about two brothers who travel through time and solve mysteries. And yet none of these examples help Alice understand her situation: “The Time Brothers had rocketed back and forth across the space-time continuum in a car. Marty McFly had the flux capacitor. Bill and Ted had their phone booth and George Carlin.” But Alice has none of those things.
And of course, it doesn’t really matter. Because what matters are the perplexing issues Straub uses her novel’s conceit to probe, such as the elusive experience of change and the passing of time, which she also explored in her previous novels “Modern Lovers” and “All Adults Here.” “Things were always changing, even when they didn’t feel like it,” Alice thinks. She “wondered if no one ever felt as old as they were because it happened so slowly, and you were only ever one day slower and creakier.” Through time travel, however, Alice sees this change, not only in her younger father but with her 40-year-old mind in her 16-year-old body.
She and her father always got along, but before he went into the hospital, she never told him she loved him. When she goes back in time, she has the opportunity. But she’s afraid of sounding unlike her teenage self, and they slide into their usual witty dynamic, making sarcastic jokes about cereal: “When she was sitting next to her father in the hospital, so badly wanting him to open his eyes and talk to her, she had not imagined them starting with Grape-nuts.” That is, they still can’t really talk to each other.
Eventually, with Leonard’s help, Alice learns the mystery to her time travel, and how to go back to her 16th birthday whenever she wants — the details of which I’ll save, so as not to spoil. Yet even after the novel briefly turns into a version of “Groundhog Day”, with Alice making little adjustments every time she goes back in order to improve her adult life, she still had difficulty speaking directly. “Dad,” she says after seeing him on countless 16th birthdays, “I haven’t been able to talk to you.”
Straub is wise enough to know that despite having ample time, it’s never enough. “It’s not about the time,” Leonard says on his deathbed. “It’s about how you spend it. Where you put your energy.” But no, it’s not really that either. Because ultimately, no matter how you spend your time or where you put your energy, you’ll part from everyone you love. And no matter how much you improve your life, you’ll eventually have to leave it. Implicitly, then, Straub’s “This Time Tomorrow” is telling us there’s a more important lesson we actually need to learn, and that is how to let go. Live life well, and then let it go, our own and the lives of our loved ones — and that’s the best we can do.
THIS TIME TOMORROW
By Emma Straub
Riverhead, 320 pages, $28
Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University.