Terrence has been making a colossal mistake for more than two decades. He just doesn’t realize it until he is downing pitchers of ten dollar mimosas at the birthday brunch his friends Sean, Winston, and Suzanne are throwing for his forty-fifth birthday. A vintage (but still in mint condition and surely too expensive) game boy that opens Terrence’s eyes to the kind of thoughtful guy Sean is. Sean, the frenemy Terrence never really thought twice about…until now.
So intrigued by the amazing retro gift and so drunk on cheap mimosas, Terrence cajoles Sean into showing him the shop where the game boy came from. Reluctantly, Sean agrees and escorts a stumbling Terrence a few blocks down to the very store: Aunt Belle’s Time Travel and Collectibles. It’s chock full of all the favorites from the 1980s and Terrence is on a mission to find out how much Sean really spent on the handheld video console. Also, his friends have dared him to ask the proprietor, Aunt Belle, about the other commodity sold at her eponymous store: time travel.
To hear Aunt Belle say it, the deep discounts on vintage goods and the time travel go hand in had. Literally. Proprietor Aunt Belle explains she uses a time machine built by her father to return to the era when she worked for a toy factory and, by a happy coincidence of quantum physics, is able to bring physical objects—like game boys—to the present from the past.
Intrigued, annoyed, or maybe just too drunk to tell the difference, Terrence tells her he’ll take her up on the offer. A few days later, after his epic hangover goes away, he returns to Aunt Belle’s Time Travel and Collectibles. He’s there to apologize rather than actually humor the lady by accepting a “ride,” yet when he catches a glimpse of the crazy “time machine” she’s apparently cobbled together, Terrence relents and gets in…and he’s instantly transported to 1992.
While it’s just his 45-year-old mind occupying his 22-year-old body, Terrence re-experiences a night out with his friends from a whole new perspective. He sees the Sean of the past in a whole new light—one not marred by the frenemy drama of the past 20 years (they haven’t happened yet). What Terrence sees is a man who just might be the love of his life. Equipped with the knowledge that he, or at least his consciousness, can actually go back in time, Terrence sets out on a mission to fix his broken relationship with Sean.
Time will tell if he’s managed to set them to rights, or if he’s damaged their tense relationship beyond all repair.
This was an absolutely charming book to read! I can’t believe Amazon says it’s 130-odd pages because it felt like I read the whole thing in about five minutes. I feel my description of the time-travel bits doesn’t do the author’s description justice. It’s hard to explain how time travel is justified in the book and do so concisely without taking up a lot of space. I’ll just say that, as it is explained in the book, I did not mind setting aside my disbelief to watch how Terrence interacted and reacted to his time-traveling escapades.
While the main story is clearly driven by the plot as Terrence goes back and forth in time trying to fix things, the whole reason he’s trying to fix things is because, at 45, he’s finally seeing the kind of man Sean really is. This was subtly set up during the birthday mimosa scene where their friends Winston and Suzanne give epically bad gifts compared to Sean’s interesting one. The love-story element is very strong, but it’s definitely punched up by the fact that up until Terrence discovers the time travel shop, he and Sean have had a…well, not a love/hate relationship, but maybe a tolerate/hate relationship.
This whole reason their friendship is so rocky is very well explored in the book and can be bittersweet at times. Since we’re seeing all the action from Terrence’s point of view, the reader is clearly rooting for him to set the past in order and get his man. That said, Terrence (and anyone else) can only travel to the past through their consciousness (that is, the physical body stays in Aunt Belle’s time machine and the person’s consciousness goes into the past; the past-self just sort of spends that time blacked out) and stay there until their past-self loses consciousness. This means Terrence arrives sometime during the day, does whatever it was his past-self was doing, and returns to the present when his past-self falls asleep (or, once, gets his lights punched out).
What this means is that 45-year-old Terrence is going back into the past and basically possessing his 20-something-year-old self. While he’s there, he retains all 45 years of his life experiences and tries to leverage that to his advantage. First, Terrence tries to undo a caustic long-term relationship with his then-boyfriend. He assumes that may open the doorway to a relationship with Sean. We learn the past can’t really be changed. Whatever happens in the past will happen no matter how much Terrence tries to interfere. Instead, Terrence changes his focus to making Sean see Terrence as something other than the stuck-up jerk he was. The caveat is that Terrence will only be gregarious as long as his 45-year-old self is inhabiting his 20-something-year-old body. This is actually a huge part of what drive a wedge between the two would-be lovers. Sean sees Terrence as mercurial and sometimes cruel because the nice Terrence only comes around once every so many years…even though it’s only a matter of days to 45-year-old Terrence.
Trust me, it makes so much more sense when you don’t have to condense it down into a blurb! Truly, I thought the time-travel element and the rocky relationship between Terrence and Sean were handled smoothly. Both threads wove through the fabric of the story seamlessly and that helped keep me turning pages.
Another aspect that, in retrospect, I feel deserves major props is how Thornton handled the side characters. There are the good ones, Terrence and Sean’s friends Suzanne and Winston, but there’s also Terrence’s ex-boyfriend (of almost 20 years). While the ex is roundly described and fills the role of Worst Boyfriend Ever to a T, his presence and his actions—not to mention Terrence’s reactions—help establish Terrence as a sympathetic character (to balance out the assholery we hear so much about when it comes to the frenemyship between him and Sean). Also, Suzanne and Winston are present in most every scene, but they too have just enough oomph to pop off the page. They even get little story points that make you pause and appreciate how these little details give them more credit as characters and not just scenery.
For example, Winston is married to Stan, whom he loves, but Stan’s job involves a lot of travel so these two aren’t together often. When asked what he would do if he could go back in time, his friends give him a hard time about the fact Winston likes to party and that he and his husband experimented with open relationships. Winston’s actual answer is heart-meltingly sweet. Suzanne, also, is portrayed as a sort of spoiled princess type. She lives off an allowance from her parents, who’ve even bought a restaurant franchise for her to keep her occupied. She is all about shopping and taking about trash TV. But when Terrence discovers something in her purse during one of his ill-fated attempts to actually change the past, we learn she’s must stronger than she appears.
Overall, I loved the structure of this story and the way Thornton worked both characters and plot together so smoothly. The fact that Terrence has discovered he just may be interested in Sean is established before any time travel is mentioned, which helps the story’s credibility in my mind (that is to say, he’s time traveling because he already wanted to have a better relationship with Sean as opposed to he wants a better relationship with Sean because he went time traveling. That is an important distinction to me in terms of the developing characters vs. progressing the plot).
Plus, there’s some great, dry humor AND interesting observations. For example,
Terrence is in the past, at a bar with his friends and they’re talking about trash TV yet again, to which Terrence thinks: I just wanted us to stop comparing ourselves to TV characters. The fact that I’d never solved a single one of my problems in thirty minutes—in between jokes and commercials—gave me an inferiority complex.
Or when Terrence is in the past and gets deep thoughts after managing to convince Sean that they were romantically compatible: Afterward, sticky and happy, I regretted every day I spent not having sex when I was young. The idea that youth is wasted on the young is all too true. You don’t even have the slightest idea what to do with it until it’s gone. If I got to do the whole thing over again, I’d have so much more sex. And I’d study harder. And save more money. And be nicer to the nice people. And meaner to the mean people.
If you’ve ever wondered what a gay romance version of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells might read like, or just want something light but with substance to fill a reading gap, I would strongly recommend this book!