Time travel is a staple of fiction. For well over a century writers have imagined different ways to propel their protagonists backwards and forwards through time. Sometimes they are merely observers, allowing the author to speculate on past motivations or future developments. But just as often, the protagonist is sent to the past to correct something affecting the future. Often, HOW the time traveler got to the past is unimportant compared to WHY they were sent, and what they need to fix. In her debut novel Lauren Thoman tells a tim-travelling story of discovery in which a young man must try to figure out not only how he travelled from 2023 to 1985, but why he is there, and if there is a way back?
Justin Warren’s entire existence has been defined by something that happened long before he was born: his grandparents, Bill and Veronica Warren, were killed in a fire at the local high school. Who set the fire was never identified. Their daughter, Justin’s mother, was orphaned. A few years after the fire, the high school was renamed in honor of Justin’s grandparents and their deaths have overshadowed his entire life.
At the end of a particularly difficult day, at the beginning of his senior year at Warren High School, Justin finds himself transported from 2023 to 1985. He doesn’t know how it has happened, but it soon becomes inescapable that it has. The first person he meets in 1985 is Rose Yin. It takes some convincing, but Rose believes Justin when he claims to be from the future. He doesn’t know how he got to where he is, so he has no idea how to return to where he belongs. But Rose has a theory: Justin has been sent back in time 38 years to save his grandparents from the fire that claimed them. Justin knows a little about the fire, including the date and time that it happened, but little else. And the identity of who set the fire was unknown in 2023. Can Rose and Justin solve a nearly 40-year-old crime that hasn’t happened yet and save his grandparents?
In I’ll Stop the World, Lauren Thoman’s debut novel, readers accompany Justin in his time-travelling quest to prevent his grandparents’ death. Justin’s sketchy knowledge of the fire provides the novel with an element of a ticking-time bomb as Justin must solve a crime for which he has mostly felt ambivalent at best and apathetic at worst.
While the premise of the book is fun and interesting, where Thoman really shines are her characters. She has created a diverse group of people in both time periods to populate the novel. And she does an excellent job drawing complete characters. This is especially true of her two protagonists: Justin and Rose.
Justin is a typical 2023 teenage boy. He has had a bit of a challenging upbringing and this manifests in his lack of confidence and his difficulty to express himself (Unless, of course, it is the times that he says things that are better left unsaid, such as lashing out at those closest to him and immediately regretting it.). Thoman subjects Justin to some fun and interesting “fish out of water” moments as he struggles to place a phone call on 80s technology; marvels at the differences in costs between 1985 and 2023; and waxes poetic about how spending time with people is a vastly different experience in the two time zones because in 1985, prior to cellphones and social media, you have someone’s undivided attention, which he claims is simply not the case in 2023, regardless of the other person’s best intentions.
Rose is equally nicely drawn. An optimist by nature, Rose is convinced that Justin’s journey through time must be to save his grandparents, and pursues saving them as if It is as important to her as it is to Justin. Thoman illustrates Rose’s own conflicts (Her inability to confess her true feelings to the object of her affections.) and shortcomings. Rose isn’t perfect, but she is the type of friend everyone would hope to have, especially when faced with a life-universe-altering mystery that needs solving.
Thoman does a marvelous job of laying out the breadcrumbs necessary for readers to solve the mystery of the fire along with Justin and Rose. She also does an admirable job of defying readers’ expected outcome at the end of the novel. I’ll Stop the World is a marvelous debut!