A Question of Time by Joanne Renaud. Published by Champagne Books on November 4, 2012.
Years later, successful author Celia Cavalotti is still mourning the death of her favorite teacher, who died in a car crash in 1989. But when a car accident of her own hurtles her back in time to the week of his death, she has a chance to change the future.
Finding herself in the 1980s is a shock to the extremely modern Celia– but even more shocking is seeing her dead English teacher, Alan Forrest, alive and well before her very eyes. Alan is far more handsome than she remembers, and she can’t resist the urge to flirt. After all, they have so much in common, like writing and a shared love of science fiction. Celia knows she’s falling in love with him– but can she use this opportunity to prevent his tragic death? What is happening to her? And why can’t she seem to stay in one place and time?
The novel opens in June 1989. Cici Cavalotti is on her way to see Mr. Forrest, her English teacher and the object of her teenage crush. He has given her the attention she craves and the support she wants. Excited to show him her latest writing, she is devastated to learn that he has died in a car crash over the weekend.
The book then shoots forward in time to March 2010. Celia is now a popular and critically-acclaimed science fiction writer who writes under the name C.L. Forrest. In a desperate move to end a particularly stubborn episode of writer’s block, Celia heads back to the city where she grew up and where she knew Mr. Forrest. She has decided to go to the local library to look for a book that exists on the edges of her memories but that she can’t quite remember, hoping to find it on still on the shelf. On her way there, she is in a car accident that propels her back in time to June 10, 1989, just before Mr. Forrest’s tragic car accident. She is confused for quite a while about what has happened to her and assumes that she is simply dreaming:
Somewhat dazed, she wandered about, looking at the people sitting around quietly reading. Wow, her subconscious was quite detailed. She saw a boy with a quiff as tall as Rick Astley’s, in a hideously blue leaf-print camp shirt, a black kid with unlaced high-tops, wearing a gold Africa chain and a baseball cap turned sideways, and a girl with big blonde hair and dressed in a garish orange and yellow Benetton ensemble. So… the late ‘80s or the early ‘90s, by the look of everyone. The very sight made her want to rub her chin and say, “Fascinating, Captain,” in her best Spock imitation.
Of course, she quickly runs into Alan Forrest and is instantly attracted to him. The feeling is mutual.
At this point, the story sort of wanders and this is the weakest section of the novel. I found myself wondering why we spent so much time on these scenes in the novel and, even having read the entire novel, still am not sure.
Celia visits a local clothing store, which Renaud describes thusly (and I must say, like totally 80s, dude):
Christ, this place reminded her of the nightmare spawn of Jem and the Holograms and Saved by the Bell. Turquoise, orange, and black paint decorated the walls, black-and-white checkered tile covered the floor, and pink neon signs on the wall in the same script as the Brass Cube logo labeled each section as “Tops,” “Dresses,” “Lingerie,” etc. TVs mounted on the wall played Duran Duran’s weird All She Wants Is video, where a cherry-lipped model lolled around on a bed under strobe lights.
Afterwards, outside, they run into a fellow student of Cici’s, Kevin DeSantos. This minor character is later important to tying together the multiple timelines that occur after Celia changes the main timeline (I’ll get back to this). Yet, the character’s narrative purpose is not clear until later in the novel. When he reappears, you have a moment of “oh, okay, that’s why that scene occurred earlier.”
After saying hello to Kevin, they go to dinner, enjoy each other’s company, and go back to Alan’s house. They fall for each other hard and fast. It’s almost too fast. I’m not the biggest fan of romance storylines that occur over a couple of days’ time (instead of weeks or months or years) but this works better than normal for me because Celia already knows him and, in a way, he knows her. Of course, hot sex ensues. This is the part of the book you know is coming from the moment you begin reading a romance novel.
What happens then has everything to do with the time travel part of A Question of Time. This was the part I was most nervous about, whether Renaud would pull off the resolution of the time travel without bogging it down in sci-fi jargon or spending too many words trying to explain the phenomenon in its entirety. She did neither and it all worked beautifully.
Celia does change the timeline. I don’t want to say exactly how or what the result of it is — some secrets should be kept — but it works. Renaud makes it work. She writes Celia as being as confused about the entire thing, which gives the reader permission to simply embrace the unknown about the situation. We, alongside Celia, are invited to wonder at the how and to just be pleased without the way it all turns out.
And how it turns out is sweet and it is heart warming.
One of the things I enjoyed the most in this novel was how Renaud brought in lots of details from the late 80s. At the beginning of the book, high-school student Cici describes Mr. Forrest this way:
God, she thought dreamily for the millionth time, he is so cute. He was way old, of course. He was thirty, or even older—but he was really handsome. Better looking than Emilio Estevez. Or even an old guy like Paul Newman, in his young and hunky days.
And when Celia meets him for the first time in the past, she tries to pinpoint who he looks like: “perhaps he was more like… Bruce Boxleitner from Tron.”
She references phone books (what are those?), The Scarecrow and Mrs. King (which I watched with my dad when I was young), Prell shampoo and Zest soap, and the newness of ziploc bags and their blue-plus-yellow-equals-green novelty.
A Question of Time is a fun return to the late 80s, a believable romance, and a good time travel mind trip.
This is a great debut novel. I look forward to reading what Renaud writes next.
I give A Question of Time 4 out of 5 stars.