What Could Have Been

The place our parents occupy in our lives cannot be easily filled. They are our first heroes, the first ones we look up to. They are the first ones who guided us when we started our journey into navigating the great labyrinth that is life. When we get sick, they are the first ones who look after us. We are their prized treasure, one that they would not even let a fly touch. As we grow up, they also constantly worry about us. In their desire to provide a better future for their children, they tire themselves out. Through dire straits, they find a way. But we grow up and still they loom large in our lives. Should we find ourselves in an uncertain situation or in a bind, they are the first ones we think about and contact. The gargantuan effort they pour into raising their children is, oftentimes, overlooked. Unfortunately. Their efforts are unappreciated, worse, unacknowledged. Still, they look at their children with a look of fondness.

As we grow up, we become preoccupied with other aspects of life. We move out of the proverbial nest that has served as our citadel of comfort for years. As we enter the world of adulthood, we learn how to fend on our own. However, we still look to our parents to seek assurance. We slowly gain confidence in ourselves because they were there to trust in us and our capabilities. But as our responsibilities and our personal world exponentially expand, the time we have for them inversely dwindles down. We fail to see that as we are busy with our own concerns, our parents are slowly aging. We do not notice the slivers of white hair that have become their crowning glory. We have become too preoccupied with our own world that we did not notice when the signs of aging start to manifest on their faces, from their balding hair to the wrinkles on their foreheads. The years can be harsh.

It was this growing consciousness about mortality and life that took the spotlight in Emma Straub’s latest novel, This Time Tomorrow. At the heart of her fifth novel was Alice Stern who we first meet in the contemporary as a woman on the cusp of her fortieth birthday. Despite the passage of time, several aspects of Alice’s life remained static. Professionally, she was stuck in a career that barely afforded her any growth; she kept her work in admission at the same Upper West Manhattan private school she attended when she was younger. She had a boyfriend but she was also contentedly living alone in the same basement studio apartment in Brooklyn she lived in since college. She also had a handful of friends she can rely on. On the flip side, her life was generally fine. Not great, but just alright.

“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.”

~ Emma Straub, This Time Tomorrow

And then her life started to unravel. The stasis that has dominated her life loomed large as she found herself at an impasse. After years of no signs of an engagement or settling down, Alice broke up with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, her 73-year-old father, Leonard, was at the hospital, in a coma. She loved her father but time was winding down and Leonard was in the throes of death. Alice was headed, it seemed, to a collision course. It was at this critical juncture that fate interceded, as it often and unexpectedly does. On the eve of her fortieth birthday, Alice had one too many drinks with her best friend for life, Sam. Unlike Alice, Sam was happily married with three children of her own but yet, she was another relic that has come to exemplify Alice’s life.

Sam’s gift for her best friend was a framed photograph of them during Alice’s sixteenth birthday. Drunk and on the way to being wasted, Alice managed to find her way. Along the way, she stumbled upon her old haunt, Matryoshka, a Russian-themed bar in the 50th Street subway station. Exacerbated by the effect of alcohol, a sense of nostalgia seized Alice. Memories came flashing back like a force. By sheer magnetic force perhaps, she found herself gravitating towards the house she grew up in, her father’s house on Pomander Walk. But before she could make it to her childhood home, she passed out in the guardhouse. In another unexpected twist, the forty-year-old Alice woke up in her childhood bed on her sixteenth birthday: “Alice listened to her father brush and rinse and spit and knock his toothbrush against the lip of the sink before settling it back into its glass cup with a jangle as it knocked against hers. It had been so long since she’d thought about those sounds — the coffee grinder, the slippered shuffle down the hall.”

The concept of time travel is nothing new in the world of literature. H.G. Wells who is often cited as a pillar of science fiction wrote one of the first and one of the most popular novels about time travel, The Time Machine. More recently, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife added romantic overtones to her story; it was also adapted into a film. Straub added her own flavor to this subgenre of the science fiction oeuvre. This she did while simultaneously grappling with familiar concerns that the subgenre has become renowned for: what would you do if you were provided a second chance, or even a third, and a fourth to rewrite your own story? Would you grab that opportunity even if it entails altering the course of your personal history and it will inevitably impact other people?

These were concerns that were at the crux of This Time Tomorrow. Alice was given a golden opportunity, an opportunity of a lifetime: 24 hours to redo what needed to be redone. One would expect her to use the time to inform everyone of the impending pandemonium that society will experience in two decades, from wars to terrorist attacks – the story is set in New York City! – to economic recessions. She could have informed everyone of the ill effects of climate change and of a pandemic that is going to alter the course of history. These are global concerns that would adversely affect everyone. This deviation from the ideal, however, did not undermine Straub’s vision. Instead of a more robust premise, Straub pared down her novel’s concern to the basic and profound: human sensibilities.

“Things were always changing, even when they didn’t feel like it. Alice 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, and the world changed so gradually that by the time cars had evolved from boxy to smooth, or green taxis had joined the yellow ones, or Metrocards had replaced tokens, you were used to it. Everyone was a lobster in the pot.”

~ Emma Straub, This Time Tomorrow

In particular, the emphasis of the story – and also its strongest and heartwarming facet – was its portrayal of the father and daughter relationship. In her dive into her story, we learn that Alice’s mother left them when she was still six. When his daughter was still a child, Leonard wrote a book about time travel, Time Brothers. When it was released, it was an immediate literary sensation. It was also adapted into an equally loved TV series. Unfortunately, Leonard never got around to writing a new novel as he devoted the rest of his life to looking after his growing daughter. The only respite he had from his quotidian life was his attendance at sci-fi fan conventions. Sure, he was not the ideal father who can cook healthy meals or take his daughter camping, but he made sure that he was there at every important moment in her life.

Being raised by a single father endeared Alice to Leonard so much more, so much so that when she traveled back in time, her goal was not to redo or fix herself. The story was fixated not on what Alice’s life could have been, notwithstanding her stagnant life in the present. Her devotion to her father, and his looming death, fueled Alice’s desire to check on what she can do to change the course of his story, not her story. What would have happened to his literary career had he found more time to devote his time beyond the care of his daughter? What would have happened if he stopped smoking and found himself a romantic partner after being romantically idle? It was yet another impasse.

The novel grappled with other subjects. Through Alice’s journey across time, we read about her looming confrontation with the inevitability of death. We try to hold on to every single thread that connects us to the people we love. However, try as we might, there is no way to prevent what is meant to be. Our mortality means our time on this earth is finite. There is no way to capture moments lost forever. Time will keep on moving forward whether we are in for the ride or not. The could-have-beens and might-have-beens can be debilitating as they play through our minds. But then the realization sets in that death is a presence that comes along with life. There was something sobering about the realization that the best way to celebrate life is to embrace every part of it, from the bad to the good.

Yes, we want to hold on to our loved ones forever but that is an impossibility. The best way, however, is to cherish every moment you have. Embrace them while you can. Shower them with your love while they are there. Because once the scythe of death makes its call, there is no turning back. In a way, the novel was a homage to the author’s father, Peter Straub who was also a writer. Peter recently passed away. While Alice wanted what was best for her father, she was also cognizant that even a slight tweak in the time capsule can have an impact that will reverberate for decades. The novel also magnified the impact of the choices we make. Even the most minute of choices we make today can have a lasting impact on our lives. A small tweak can change the flow of time.

“The problem with adulthood was feeling like everything came with a timer—a dinner date with Sam was at most two hours, with other friends, probably not even as long. There was maybe waiting for a table, there was a night at a bar, there was a party that went late, but even that was just a few hours of actual time spent. Most of Alice’s friendships now felt like they were virtual, like the pen pals of her youth. It was so easy to go years without seeing someone in person, to keep up to date just through the pictures they posted of their dog or their baby or their lunch. There was never this—a day spent floating from one thing to another.”

~ Emma Straub, This Time Tomorrow

Tying up the story together was Straub’s writing. Her writing’s atmospheric and descriptive quality captured the spirit and landscape of New York City circa the late 1990s. In particular, it paid homage to Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The backdrop became an integral part of the story. Pomander Walk, where Leonard lived, was described as “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.” We read about the places that the father and daughter frequented, some of which still exist today. Some of these establishments have already disappeared. As Straub wrote, “but that was New York, watching every place you’d kissed or cried, every place you loved, turn into something else.” Straub also subtly incorporated commentaries on social classes. Further evoking the period were cultural touchstones, particularly in music and pop culture.

This Time Tomorrow, at its heart, is a heartwarming and compelling story about a daughter’s love for her father. While there was a deviation from realism, it was barely perceptible because the novel’s premise was anchored on profound subjects such as the dynamics of a father and daughter relationship, the inevitability of our mortality, how our choices matter, and, life in general. The preoccupation with time travel iterated on the importance of time and requires suspension of belief. The passage of time also loomed largely and was portrayed through Leonard and Upper West Side. This Time Tomorrow was a daughter’s love letter to her father. However, it was also Alice’s own coming-of-age story. Some of the novel’s most ruminative passages dealt with Alice’s personal crises, including her looming midlife crisis, the feeling of isolation as she finds herself living alone, and the different life she yearned for.

Overall, This Time Tomorrow was a compelling read about life, writing, and the magic of storytelling. As Alice ruminated, “Any story could be a comedy or tragedy, depending on where you ended it. That was the magic; how the same story could be told an infinite number of ways.”

“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.”

~ Emma Straub, This Time Tomorrow
Rating

78%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
22%
Writing (25%) – 
19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

Earlier this year, as part of my annual reading goals planning, I searched for books to include in my 2022 Books I Look Forward To List. I have always been a backlist type of reader but I have been trying to incorporate more new books into my annual reading journey. Anyway, one of the books that came in highly recommended in similar highly anticipated lists was Emma Straub’s This Time Tomorrow. Unfortunately, I have never read any of her works before. This was also to her advantage because my curiosity got the best of me, hence, the inclusion of her fifth novel to my 2022 Books I Look Forward To List. When I started reading the book, I didn’t know what to expect. In Alice Stern, we see a woman slowly descending into a personal crisis. Her life was at a standstill, which makes her story relatable. But then, as the story moved forward, the novel’s landscape also began transforming. That part about science fiction caught me off-guard but I was able to adjust. Overall, it was an interesting book that grappled with the profound realities of our lives.

Book Specs

Author: Emma Straub
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publishing Date: May 2022
Number of Pages: 307
Genre: Science Fiction, Literary

Synopsis

What if you could take a vacation to your past?

On the eve of her fortieth 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, and her independence, and she adores her lifelong best friend. But something is missing. Her father, the single parent who raised her, is ailing and out of reach. How did they get here so fast? Did she take too much for granted along the way?

When Alice wakes up the next morning, she finds herself back in 1996, reliving her sixteenth 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, forty-nine-year-old version of her father with which 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 she would change if she could?

With her celebrated humor insight, and heart, beloved New York Times bestselling author Emma Straub offers her own twist on traditional time-travel tropes and a different kind of love story – about the lifelong, reverberating relationship between a parent and child.

About the Author

Emma Straub was born on April 27, 1980, in New York City where she was also raised. Straub is the daughter of horror and suspense writer Peter Straub. Straub graduated from The Cathedral School of St. John the Divine, Saint Ann’s School, and Oberlin College. She completed her Masters of Fine Arts in Fiction at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

After completing her post-graduate studies, Straub pursued a career in writing. She made her literary debut in 2009 with the publication of the composite novel Fly-Over State. She followed it up with Other People We Married (2011), a collection of short stories. It was followed up with a series of novels: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures (2012), The Vacationers (2014), Modern Lovers (2016), and All Adults Here (2020). Her latest novel is This Time Tomorrow which was published in 2022. Her works, both fiction and nonfiction, have also appeared in a slew of publications and magazines such as Vogue, New York Magazine, Tin House, The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, and The Paris Review Daily. All Adults Here is currently in development as a television series.

She is married to Michael Fusco-Straub, a graphic designer, with whom she has two sons. The couple also owns the bookstore Books Are Magic. They currently reside in Brooklyn, New York City.