51 pages 1 hour read

Emma Straub

This Time Tomorrow

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


This Time Tomorrow, published in 2022, is the sixth book by New York Times–best-selling writer Emma Straub. Utilizing the science-fiction trope of time travel, This Time Tomorrow explores themes of self-discovery, coping with the difficult realities of life, and the power of family connection.

This study guide refers to the 2022 Riverhead Books edition.

Plot Summary

Alice Stern is about to turn 40 years old. Reflecting on her life, she finds some satisfaction—but also some longing. She has a stable job in the admissions office of her former private school, the Belvedere School. She has a boyfriend and an apartment, and she remains close with her high school best friend, Sam. But Alice struggles with her father’s long-term illness. Though undiagnosed, Leonard Stern has been in the hospital for months with no hope of recovery. Leonard is the author of the best-selling time-travel novel Time Brothers.

On Alice’s 40th birthday, her boyfriend proposes to her. Alice has given up on her youthful wonderings about marriage and children; she turns down his proposal and breaks up with him. She gets drunk, and then returns to her childhood home, in a neighborhood called Pomander Walk. When she wakes up, she is 16 years old again, back in her childhood bedroom in the year 1996. Her father is younger and healthy, and the senses she experiences are too real to be a dream. Alice realizes that she’s traveled back in time to her 16th birthday.

Alice spends her second 16th birthday trying to figure out how she traveled through time. She doesn’t want to stay at age 16, but she wants to make a change for her future. She has sex with her friend and longtime crush Tommy, hoping to erase her later regret that she didn’t make a move. She also spends time with her father, hoping that she can get him to quit smoking. She tells Sam and her father about her time travel. Leonard immediately believes her because he, too, has traveled through time in the portal of Pomander Walk, always to the day of Alice’s birth. He tells her that she can jump back and forth between her 16th and her 40th birthdays, but he also warns her that most things won’t change because people don’t ultimately change.

Alice jumps ahead to her future again, but this time her life is different. She wakes up on her 40th birthday married to Tommy with two children. Her life is lavishly luxurious. Alice has always wondered what it would be like to have a husband and kids, but she finds she can’t quite believe her life. Alice is disappointed to discover that her father is in the same situation, slowly dying in the hospital. At the birthday party Tommy hosts for Alice, Sam shows Alice Leonard’s second book, Dawn of Time, about a teenage girl who travels through time. This book proves that one good thing did change; Leonard finally published another book. It also proves that Leonard still believes Alice. Alice decides to travel back to age 16 because her alternate life as a 40-year-old is not the one she wants.

Alice goes back and forth between ages 16 and 40 several times. Some things change; some don’t. In every iteration of her 40-year-old life, Leonard remains on his deathbed, typically unable to communicate or even recognize her. Finally, she gets an opportunity to speak to him while he’s sick. They discuss the limitations of time travel and figure out that Leonard is fatally sick without diagnosis because of the time traveling: Hopping back and forth through time has deteriorated his body. But Leonard has lived a happy life and accepts the inevitability of his death. Alice finds herself at age 40 with a slightly better life than before; she’s had a promotion at work, and Leonard has married again, to Deborah, a kind and supportive woman. Alice decides not to travel back in time again. Leonard dies surrounded by his loved ones. Alice returns to her life as a 40-year-old with slight differences in her social life and career and moves forward, never to travel through time again.