Magical Realism

Before the Coffee Gets Cold

I feel like I had vaguely heard of this one somewhere, but it really came to my attention when it was featured last month (maybe the month before?) on my library’s Hoopla app. The cover looked so cute and, like I said, it sounded a little familiar, so I clicked on it to learn more. Well, one quick skim of the blurb had me adding it to my TBR *that* moment.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

There’s a small, non-descript café in Tokyo that doesn’t only serve coffee. It also gives visitors a chance to travel in time. Though there are many rules to follow, like having to be seated at a certain table, not being able to leave the café, and only being able to stay in that different time for the however long it takes the coffee to get cold (and then being sure to drink it all in order to return), as well as knowing that nothing one does in the past can change the present, there are still those who wish to travel. This novel tells the story of four of those people, traveling back to speak to a dead relative one more time, to see a partner before the grip of Alzheimer’s takes hold, to have one final word with a previous lover, and, in one special case, traveling forwards to meet the daughter they’ll never otherwise have the chance to know.

Despite the concept of this novel being one that could lend itself to grand adventures and large dramas, I was surprised to find that it had a very quiet, understated sort of vibe. With all the rules connected to the time travel, it turns out that not many people are able or willing to take advantage of it, and what seems like it would be a very popular destination/option, is actually a pretty quiet and underwhelming spot. Although that was unexpected, for sure, once I adjusted, I found myself pretty taken with this story. The four stories that this novel focus are from the lives of café regulars and staff, so a large part of the novel is actually spent getting to know them, their individual lives and the connections they have to each other. The development of the background on each is completely connected to their reasons for wanting to travel in time, and those they wish to see again by doing so, but since each of these reasons is intensely personal, we end up with a fairly solid sense of each character. I wouldn’t have thought I’d have wanted that, to start, but it ended up really working with the unassuming vibe of the writing and story.

With that, this ended up being, instead of a sweeping time change/travel epic, a really tender way for these characters to find the options that always existed for them or meet the challenges they needed to face or, in a more or less “on their own” way, just get the little…push…that they needed. It showed the reader that there is always a bit of magic to be found in the mundane, that the quotidian can be special or important, and to not lose sight of that. Relatedly, and due in part to the aforementioned rule about not being able to change the present, there is no opportunity for major “fixes” or “ruination” based on actions during time travel, leaving the patrons with the simple chance to find that bittersweet benefit of closure. And there’s a lovely moral in there about the fact that while events/situations/reality cannot and doesn’t change, people still can, and do, all the time.  

I will say that there were a few moments that this book veered into cheesy just a smidge too much for me. It was never over-the-top, but the line was definitely toed. In addition, and maybe this would have been different reading a physical copy versus listening, because I could have sped through these interchanges a bit faster as necessary, but there were a few points where I thought the characters caught onto things or took action just a little too slowly. Perhaps that’s just me though, as I’m a fast-paced reader/thinker and this was a more reflectively written novel, so bear that in mind.

Overall, this novel was much more subtle and understated than I’d expected, with a very deliberate pacing and unfolding, and a bent towards the sentimental. However, I enjoyed, very much, the elevating of “normal” relationships and routines and interactions to a level that is worth this kind of scrutiny and taking advantage of time travel to get right/correct. It definitely makes you consider some of the less exciting, but no less important for that steadiness, relationships in one’s own life – reminding one to nurture and appreciate them for what they are. Similarly, there is a certain sort of “live life to the fullest” message that comes through loudly, despite some of the difficult topics addressed (albeit in a light sort of way), that makes me think fans of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (and similar novels) will really enjoy this read.    

2 thoughts on “Before the Coffee Gets Cold

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