Reviewed by Nicholas Havey
If I See You Again Tomorrow
by Robbie Couch
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
pp. 336, Paperback, April 2023
What do blue velvet brownies, Nora Ephron movies, a diner milkshake, and a side of fries have in common? They’re all things Clark experiences over and over again. He’s stuck in a time loop after all. But everything changes on day 310 after a boy he’s never seen before crashes into his math class. Enter Beau, the first new person Clark has met in almost a year. He’s dreamy, spontaneous, and someone Clark can’t wait to learn more about. It doesn’t hurt that he’s the only person in Clark’s life who is also trapped in a time loop.
After hundreds of days of monotony, Clark breaks his routine and follows Beau on the errands he does daily, meeting colorful characters like Otto, who makes those scrumptious blue velvet brownies, Dee, Beau’s newest friend with a big secret, and Emery, an aspiring actor who works at the local movie theater. This is great news for Clark, whose therapist has encouraged him to make new friends, help someone in his life, and be vulnerable. He does these things, in turn, with each member of our side cast of characters, using his unique predicament to try out and test new approaches. Like a choose your own adventure, Clark’s repeated efforts to find out why Beau and Otto don’t talk anymore, discover Dee’s big secret, and help Emery nail his next (and first) audition require new choices, new dialogue, and new interactions. All of which are made possible by Couch’s time loop.
As Clark relives moments and ponders why exactly he is stuck in a time loop, he and Beau realize they may be each other’s ticket out (Clark) or problem (Beau). Tension ensues and, once Clark makes contact with a time loop researcher who herself claims to have been trapped in a loop with a friend decades before, the will they won’t they tension between Clark and Beau rolls to a boil. Beau actively avoids Clark for weeks, trying to reduce the heat, while Clark won’t let up on the gas.
Over the course of the book, Clark goes on the emotional journey sparked by his therapist and does learn how to be more vulnerable, how to help the people in his life and be a more active and empathetic person, and even makes a few friends. This process is cathartic and helps him process his parents’ divorce and the fact that his best friend moved away and is consistent with other time loop content, like Netflix’s Russian Doll, that utilize the speculative element to explore character’s emotions through repetitive but also divergent choices. Clark learns and grows, but ultimately only pushes himself to make positive choices when it benefits him. Each interaction is transactional and he is merely solving a puzzle that promises him a reward upon its completion.
Stories focusing on time travel, or repetitive time travel, have always been spaces to explore the same experience in new ways. Like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, time loop narratives afford the characters, trapped for whatever reason, to try out new choices, new dialogue, and new interactions all in service of unraveling the loop and returning to the timestream they left. In the case of Netflix’s Russian Doll, the time loop structure allows Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia Vulvokov to grow, reflect, and adapt to her surroundings and the life she’s built for herself. Couch’s time loop affords Clark the same space, but left me feeling that his personal growth was purely a result of the pursuit of his selfish desires. In theory, he is improving the lives of others in his life (connecting two people who have crushes on each other but lack the courage to say so, reconnecting a father and his surrogate son after a traumatic split), but this improvement is purely a result of self-service.
Like Couch’s Blaine, who wants to win a class president race purely to spite his ex, even though his best friend actually wants it and does the bulk of the work for him, Clark is selfish and places a lot of the burden of growth on the women and people of color in his life. Is this normal teenage behavior? Sure, but it also feels like a pattern that, at least for me personally, blunts the otherwise strong emotional impact of Couch’s strong writing. I simply wasn’t rooting for Clark to escape the time loop because I wanted him to succeed but I did want him to escape it because I wanted him to stop badgering the other characters unknowingly trapped in it.
If I See You Again Tomorrow is another strong addition to Couch’s growing stable of heartstring-tugging queer YA novels, but I hope whatever comes next does not find me in a time loop where I spend every page hoping I’ll finally be able to root for the main character and not the side characters doing all the work for him.
About the reviewer: Nick Havey is Director of Institutional Research at the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, a thriller and mystery writer, and a lover of all fiction. His work has appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books, Lambda Literary, and a number of peer-reviewed journals.