Most helpfully, the father of our protagonist Alice (of course!) is the author of a wildly successful book and TV series about time-traveling brothers, and thus an expert on the mechanics of the business. But first, well before he has a chance to explain about time loops and wormholes and multiverses and whatnot, we find him unconscious in a hospital bed, approaching that ultimate time machine, death. It is Alice’s 40th birthday, a wormhole if ever there was one, and along with confronting her beloved father’s mortality, she is contemplating her own life at this juncture: single, with a serious boyfriend she’s not about to marry, living in the same studio apartment in Brooklyn that she’s had since college, working at the posh private school she attended where she’s now vetting the children of her former classmates (including her teenage crush).
For her birthday, Alice arranges to have dinner with Sam, her lifelong best friend, a happily married mother of three, whose gift is a framed photograph of the two of them at Alice’s 16th birthday party, “both wearing tiaras and slips and dark lipstick,” Sam with “a beer bottle in her hand, and Alice . . . taking a drag off a cigarette.” (The photo is transporting, you might say, but not yet.) On her way home Alice stops at an old haunt, Matryoshka, a Russian-themed bar in the 50th Street subway station, and you can just feel the magic, like the dark and the liquor, beginning to gather strength. Did I mention that it’s October? “A good month to confront death,” Alice later observes, “this was why Halloween worked.”
Alice’s father’s house, the house she grew up in, is on quaint Pomander Walk — “a real street inspired by a novel-turned-play about a small town in England . . . with two rows of tiny houses that looked straight out of ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ locked behind a gate.” Alice passes out there, dead drunk in the guardhouse — and wakes up in her childhood bed on her 16th birthday.
She’s not drunk anymore. She’s not dreaming or concussed. It seems she’s been handed the chance to revisit a pivotal moment in her life story, perhaps to revise it. “That was the magic,” as she comes to see it, “how the same story could be told an infinite number of ways.”
Meanwhile, there’s the fun of being 16 again, with all the know-how of a 40-year-old and foresight of a time traveler, which allows Alice to do it better, but also, poignantly, to appreciate the youthful loveliness that she was just too young to see in herself at the time. And when better to see it than on her 16th birthday, “the night of her party ... the two of them [Alice and Sam], positively drunk on their own immortality.”
Will what she does change the future? Will she be able to get back, and how? Can tinkering with her father's habits or routine in the past spare him the grim hospital scene in the present? With Sam, a game girl, in her confidence, Alice reviews time travel tales for clues, from “Back to the Future” and “Groundhog Day” to “Outlander” and “The Time Traveler's Wife.” Unsurprisingly, it's her father, creator of “Time Brothers,” who has the key. He is the key — as the whole story is really about Alice holding onto her father, who's out of time.
And Alice, in her own way, is also out of time, apt to feel “like she was already missing the moment that she was still living inside.” What strikes her most powerfully, again and again, is how time passes, and change happens, unnoticed. Even before her adventures, finding herself at Matryoshka’s door at the surprising age of 40, she wonders “if no one ever felt as old as they were because it happened so slowly . . . everyone was a lobster in the pot.”
“Sometimes people didn’t understand,” Alice reflects, “that fiction was a myth. Fictional stories, that is. Maybe there were bad ones out there, but the good ones, the good ones — those were always true. Not the facts, not the rights and the lefts, not the plots, which could take place in outer space or in hell or anywhere in between, but the feelings. The feelings were the truth.”
Traveling back and forth through time, through some of the infinite ways her story might be told, Alice is looking for the good one, the one that, wistful as a fairy tale in its way, finally feels true.
Ellen Akins is the author of four novels and a collection of stories, “World Like a Knife.”
This Time Tomorrow
By Emma Straub
Riverhead. 320 pp. $28
A note to our readers
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.