The millennial midlife crisis has arrived.
Yes, while you joke about avocado toast, the oldest millennials have quietly and fearfully entered their 40s. Given that they can’t afford houses, let alone sports cars, what does a millennial’s midlife crisis look like? In Emma Straub’s winning new novel “This Time Tomorrow” (Riverhead, 320 pp., ★★★½ out of four, from Tuesday), it’s a bit like the movies they grew up in, with a touch of time travel to spice up the existential fear.
Alice Stern’s father is dying. That’s tough on any daughter, but it hits Alice especially hard as she approaches a midlife crossroads: She’s about to turn 40, suspects she’ll be proposed to by a man she doesn’t want to marry, and still can’t. decide if she wants children despite a biological clock that is ticking fast. It seems like she can’t make up her mind about anything, and the one constant in her life, the single father who raised her with unwavering, if imperfect love, lies unresponsive in a hospital bed.
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“There would be an upside to maturity, wouldn’t there be?” Alice muses. “The period of your life that was yours, and not chosen for you by other people?”
It doesn’t help that she’s still at the exclusive private Belvedere School where she spent her teens, working in filming, deciding which of her old classmates’ kids will make it. Alice’s sense of developmental dysfunction is shaken when her unrequited teenage love walks through the door of her office with a beautiful woman and young son in tow.
All those intense adolescent feelings come back, complicated by remorse for untrodden paths. Would this have been her life had she told the cute boy with the luscious Jordan Catalano hair how she felt?
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She gets the chance to find out when, after a night of drunken revelry on her 40th birthday that ends with passing out in an empty guardhouse, she wakes up and finds herself in her childhood bed at her father’s house, aged 16 again. The guardhouse, she discovers, is a time portal. On the one hand it is her 16th birthday and on the other her 40th, and the changes she makes in her past are reflected in her future. It’s eerily similar to “Time Brothers,” the sci-fi novel about time-traveling brothers her father wrote and made her father a popular staple at geek conventions.
What would you change if you could go back to 16? Would you sleep with your crush at your birthday party? Doing drugs? Shave your head? Begging your father to quit smoking? Tell him you love him more?
Alice does it all and tries to create a happier future – a future where her deathbed father is not present on her 40th birthday. With each journey back to 16, she gains a better understanding of her father, who seemed so old when she was a child, but seems so young now.
“Alice and her father had always been such good friends,” Straub writes. “It was luck, she knew, just luck, that gave some families complementary personalities. So many people spent their lives wanting to be understood. All Alice wanted was more time.”
“This Time Tomorrow” is technically a time travel book, but not like Alice’s father’s book. Straub isn’t so much concerned with the mechanics of time travel, the butterfly effect, or the killing of baby Hitler (or whatever the equivalent of that 1990s moral test would be). Straub is concerned with love – its different forms and expressions, how it evolves over time and how we can better give and accept it.
Also love for her own father, horror writer Peter Straub, whom she thanks in the acknowledgments “for receiving this book as it was intended, as a gift.”
Because even if you could go back and change everything else, the love would stay the same.
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