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In 'This Time Tomorrow,' Emma Straub looks at the pieces that make a life


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

In This Time Tomorrow, Alice Stern, faced with the imminent death of her beloved 73-year-old father, confronts her own stasis, stuck for years in the same tiny studio apartment and the same job in the admissions department of the Upper West Side Manhattan private school she attended decades earlier. When, after a night of too many drinks celebrating her 40th birthday, she wakes up back in her childhood bedroom on the morning of her not-entirely-sweet 16th, she wonders if, by tweaking the day, she can change the way her life and her father's have played out.

Alice's father, Leonard, is the author of a famous time travel novel called Time Brothers, which was made into a popular TV series. Its success enabled him to buy the quaint, dollhouse-sized Pomander Walk townhouse where Alice grew up, and to send his 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. Though never one to make balanced meals, take her camping, or set many rules — even for himself — he is one of the most appealing fathers in literature. Mostly, they hang out and float, 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 — quit smoking, eat vegetables, exercise, remarry — to prolong his life.

Straub is the daughter of Peter Straub, the author of numerous horror and supernatural novels, including Ghost Story and Shadowland. Regardless of how many autobiographical elements This Time Tomorrow does or does not contain, it joins a growing lineup of books in which writer-daughters pay tribute to their fathers — including Kathryn Schulz's beautiful paternal portrait in her memoir Lost & Found, and Ada Calhoun's forthcoming Also a Poet, about her father, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl.

Of course This Time Tomorrow is fiction, which gives Straub leeway to have fun with alternate realities. Beginning with its first line — "Time did not exist in the hospital" — the inexorable, inescapable, and incomprehensible nature of time underpins this love letter to a dying dad. Time proceeds slowly in the detailed early sections of the novel, but speeds up as Alice loops back to her past repeatedly (and almost addictively) with trips that are summarized in short paragraphs separated by lots of white space.

"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 again until everyone was happy, forever," Straub writes. 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 bedroom with another girl — make her happy. Others, such as waking up at 40 as the mother of Tommy's two kids and an adornment of his rich life, cause her to flee 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 hit iconic establishments, many of which still exist, like Gray's Papaya for hotdogs and the whale hall at the Museum of Natural History. But the places that have disappeared — Raccoon Lodge, Clairmont Riding Academy — resonate with the ache of nostalgia for things past. Describing this urban erasure and pentimento, Straub comments, "but that was New York, watching every place you'd kissed or cried, every place you loved, turn into something else."

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

Along with the paeans to her beloved hometown, Straub nails "the many kinds of rich people in New York City." Among her amusing satiric riffs: a rundown of the unspoken specialties of private schools, including those catering to "eating-disordered overachievers," or "tiny Brooks Brothers mannequins who would end up as CEOs," or "well-rounded normies who would become lawyers." In Alice's formerly bohemian prep school, "the moms at drop-off idled outside in their Teslas and the children were all on ADHD medication." But Straub never bites too hard. She adds, "Nothing gold can stay, but it was still her place, and she loved it."

That positivity is characteristic of This Time Tomorrow, whose takeaways, as Straub observes, might suit needlepoint pillows: "The way you spend your days is the way you spend your life." While the novel's time travel logistics don't bear close scrutiny, what Alice learns is comfortingly hopeful: "All the tiny pieces added together to make a life, but the pieces could always be rearranged." Straub has come through with another delightful summer read.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.