Review: Before the Coffee Gets Cold

Toshikazu Kawaguchi 272 pages Hanover Square Press (2019) 

Tl;dr summary: Intersecting stories of the employees and patrons of a café with a time travel seat.

Read this if you like: Haruki Murakami, Twin Peaks, magical realism

See the book on Bookshop

My feelings on this book are a bit conflicted. Let me start with the things I’m into about it. The entire premise, for one thing—yes, time travel is an oft-repeated idea, but Kawaguchi brought a fresh angle to it by adding restrictions. It’s a living example of how adding rules can enhance creativity. The time travel is limited to a single seat in the café, and it has a clock: the session starts with the time traveler being poured a cup of coffee; they return to the present when they finish it, and have to do so before it gets cold (and the consequences if they fail to do so are woven nicely into the story, too). 

Another unique thing about these limitations is that I think they were influenced to some extent by the fact that Before the Coffee Gets Cold started as a stage play. When people go to the past, they can’t get up from that one seat. This keeps all the action nicely rooted in a single set. In the novel version, there are references to the outside world that keep it from feeling claustrophobic, and the use of just one primary setting enhances the surreal atmosphere. The café intersects with day-to-day reality but it still feels set apart from it—always the same temperature, with no windows and clocks showing different times. The reasons for these things are never explained, just like the time travel simply is. If the world were bigger, I think that would have bothered me, but since we only see reality as it exists within the café, I’m able to suspend my disbelief and roll with the premise without getting bogged down by unproductive questions.

The first section (“The Lovers”) read as the strongest to me. It’s a masterclass in how to build a world without it feeling like an info dump. The recitation of the rules and backstory of the time travel seat were smoothly integrated into the narrative. It helps that the café staff needs to explain those rules to a new guest, Fumiko, who wants to travel into the past. Fumiko debates whether to go, and once she decides to, she finds herself facing more roadblocks that create nice points of conflict/tension and release. That work she has to put in before she even travels back in time also makes the payoff of that journey feel like it was earned.

As I kept reading through the book, though, I did have a few quibbles. The structure also shows influences of the stage, separated into four sections that feel like individual acts. They aren’t completely separate—the same characters show up in most and have story arcs that build throughout the book. It has more the feel of a novel-in-stories than a novel, though. I’m not against this on principle, but there were places it felt a bit clunky.

One place in particular is at the start of “Husband and Wife”, the second section. Parts of it read very repetitive to the first section, like it was written as though readers wouldn’t have this context for how the cafe looks and the rules of the time travel. It felt overwritten compared to the first section, and the pace was slower. In the first section, Fumiko encounters unexpected complications, and the reader isn’t completely sure she’s going to take the time journey until it happens. The second section felt more predictable, and there weren’t any of those snags that Fumiko had to fight through.

It's also interesting that, while there’s more backstory and context given for the couple in “Husband and Wife” (Kohtake and Fusagi), they didn’t feel as fully-realized as characters as Fumiko did. To cite an old cliché, I felt like I was being told more than shown, and the epiphany payoff at the end didn’t feel as satisfying as a result—I felt like I could see the author leading me there, rather than following the characters’ journey.

I did feel like the book got back on track in its final two sections, in part because each brings something new to the time travel conceit. The stakes are raised in “Sisters” and this brings back some of the tension that was missing in “Husband and Wife”—the risk that Hirai (the time-traveler in “Sisters”) won’t make it back to the present feels real. The characters also feel more fully-realized, I think perhaps because Hirai’s mistakes, regrets, and imperfections take center-page.

This type of narrative has a high risk for sentimentality. The situations that would motivate someone to do this kind of time travel are all situations that can easily veer into melodrama. The first three sections deftly avoid this trap, but I don’t think I’d say the same about the final story. The plot felt a bit forced and the primary character, Kai, fell a bit flat compared to other protagonists. She’s a recurring figure throughout the book, and I enjoyed the way she was written in previous sections, but when she was made the story’s focal point she seemed to lose a dimension. The emotions in places felt shallow and inauthentic as a result.

At the end of the day, while I do have my quibbles, I’m glad I read this book. The premise puts a new spin on a common trope and it’s an excellent example of how sparse worldbuilding can be very effective. I also appreciate that it’s a story you can read on multiple levels—it would be a good book club book, I think, because I could see it generating some very fun and deep discussion. If you like everyday stories with a light touch of the speculative and weird, you’ll likely find Before the Coffee Gets Cold an enjoyable read.

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