In ‘This Time Tomorrow’, Emma Straub looks back at the pieces that make a life: NPR

Emma Straub’s fifth novel is an entertaining charmer that unleashes the magic of time travel to sweeten its exploration of potentially weighty themes like mortality, the march of time, and how small decisions can alter your life.

In Tomorrow at this time, Alice Stern, facing the impending death of her beloved 73-year-old father, faces her own stasis, stuck for years in the same small studio and the same job in the admissions department of the Upper Private School West Side Manhattan which she frequented decades earlier. When, after a night of too many drinks to celebrate her 40th birthday, she wakes up in her childhood bedroom on the morning of her not-quite-sweet 16th, she wonders if, by altering the day, she can change the way whose life and those of his father have played.

Alice’s father, Leonard, is the author of a famous time travel novel titled brothers of time, which was made into a popular television series. Her success allowed her to buy the quaint, dollhouse-sized townhouse in Pomander Walk, where Alice grew up, and send her only child to the prestigious Belvedere School, where she still works.

Leonard, who raised Alice as a single parent after her flaky mother left them when Alice was 6, tellingly calls her Al-pal. Although he’s never been one to cook healthy meals, take her camping, or set many rules—even for himself—he’s one of literature’s most appealing dads. Most of the time they hang around and float around, like seahorses, walking and talking. Traveling back in time, Alice is amazed at how young and healthy her father was at 49. With the wisdom of her 40-year-old self, she wishes she could get him to change his habits—stop smoking, eat vegetables, exercise, remarry—to prolong his life.

Straub is the only child of Peter Straub, the author of numerous horror and supernatural novels, including ghost story and Shadow land. Regardless of the number of autobiographical elements Tomorrow at this time does or does not do contains, it joins a growing line of books in which writer-daughters pay homage to their fathers – including Kathryn Schulz’s beautiful fatherly portrait in her memoir lost found, and Ada Calhoun’s next Also a poet, about his father, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl.

Sure Tomorrow at this time is fiction, which gives Straub leeway to play with alternate realities. Beginning with its first line – “Time did not exist in the hospital” – the inexorable, inescapable and incomprehensible nature of time underlies this love letter to a dying father. Time moves slowly through the first detailed sections of the novel, but speeds up as Alice repeatedly (and almost addictively) revisits her past with journeys that are summed up in short paragraphs separated by lots of spaces. whites.

“Alice just wanted to push her hands against the walls of her life and see if they would move. She wanted to hit the reset button over and over until everyone was happily ever after,” Straub wrote. Some of the changes Alice makes—like boldly initiating sex with her high school crush, Tommy, at her unchaperoned party, instead of watching him disappear into her room with another girl—make her happy. Others, like waking up at 40 as the mother of Tommy’s two children and an adornment to his rich life, have her fleeing in horror.

Straub’s novel is also a love letter to Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the late 1990s. Alice and her father repeatedly visited iconic establishments, many of which still exist, such as Gray’s Papaya for the hot dogs and whale room at the Natural History Museum. But the places gone – Raccoon Lodge, Clairmont Riding Academy – resonate with nostalgia for the past. Describing this urban erasure and pentimento, Straub comments, “but it was New York, watching every place you had kissed or cried, every place you loved, transform into something else.”

You don’t have to be a literary critic to grasp Straub’s many sources of inspiration. Alice, whose favorite clothing store is the now defunct Alice Underground, falls through some sort of mirror into her past. The subway bar she frequents is called Matryoshka, named after the Russian nesting dolls, which reflects the structure of this novel.

Along with hymns to his beloved hometown, Straub nails “the many kinds of wealthy people in New York.” Among his amusing satirical riffs: a glimpse into the unspoken specialties of private schools, including those catering to “overachievers with eating disorders”, or “tiny Brooks Brothers models who would eventually become CEOs”, or ” well-balanced standards that would become lawyers.” At Alice’s former bohemian prep school, “moms at drop-off were pulling up outside in their Teslas and the kids were all on ADHD meds.” But Straub never bites too hard. She adds: “Nothing gold can stay, but it was always her place and she loved it.”

This positivity is characteristic of Tomorrow at this time whose takeaways, as Straub observes, might suit needlepoint pillows: “The way you spend your days is the way you spend your life.” While the logistics of the novel’s time travel won’t come under scrutiny, what Alice learns is a comforting hope: “All the little pieces added together to make a life, but the pieces still could be rearranged.” Straub pulled off another delicious summer read.


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