Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow Is Gabrielle Zevin at Her Most ExpansiveBooks Reviews Gabrielle Zevin
Before Gabrielle Zevin captured the hearts (and plaudits) of the adult contemporary market with The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry and Young Jane Young, she was taking some of the most interesting swings in the late-aughts Young Adult scene.
In Elsewhere (2005), she imagined an afterlife where you live your years in reverse, from the age of your death all the way back to infancy, at which point you’re returned to the “real” world to try your hand at the whole life thing all over again. In Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac (2007), she used a combination of a coin flip and retrograde amnesia (that old soap opera chestnut) to imagine what a second chance at high school might look like, in all its complex angst. And in All These Things I’ve Done (2011) and its two Birthright sequels (2012, 2013), she used a dystopian future in which chocolate and coffee are illegal and American democracy is even more fucked than it is today to imagine the life, loves, and losses of a sixteen-year-old crime boss, as recollected to her grandchildren by said crime boss’s elderly future self.
To be clear: I am not running Paste readers through Zevin’s imaginative YA past on a lark, or as an exercise in filling digital space. On the contrary, while fans of her more recent adult work seem, on the whole, to be surprised by the innovative emotional and formal somersaulting of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (out this week from Knopf Doubleday), anyone who’s at all versed in her YA work will immediately understand that everything she took such big teen-oriented swings at a dozen years ago—not just emotional themes and character types, but also temporally interwoven narrative devices, a deep interest in how people grow and change from childhood to old age, and an playfully circular theory of life—she’s pulled together into one expansive world with the emotional wallop of a tale that is Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.
Of course Zevin isn’t the only writer who’s ever improved their craft by returning to the same creative well time and again throughout their career. But while she is treading familiar ground professionally by essentially revisiting her own creative past, that very act of creative retreading is so central to the story Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is telling that understanding where Zevin started is the key to understanding where she wants to bring us now.
And so what, exactly, is the story Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is telling? It’s this: In a Los Angeles children’s hospital in the late 1980s, 11-year-old Sadie Green bonds with 12-year-old Samson Masur over the hospital’s game room copy of Super Mario. Years later, after a mysterious but decisive falling out, they reconnect in Boston, where Sam is studying math at Harvard and Sadie is studying video game design at MIT. Galvanized by an audaciously simple game Sadie designed for an advanced Fall seminar that she passed him on a whim between semesters, Sam proposes they spend the following summer building a game together.
With the production help of Sam’s golden retriever of a roommate, Marx Watanabe, whose student production of Twelfth Night inspires their game’s inciting incident, the pair ends up creating a gentle adventure game called Ichigo, which so immediately and completely takes over pop culture that the three friends are able to build the video game development company of their dreams. A dozen years, a second Ichigo, and at least three hard new fallings-out later, Sadie and Sam find themselves back where they started, on a train platform on the East Coast, passing a game demo between them as their latest freeze shows signs of thaw.
That final detail might, in other reviews, constitute a mild spoiler, but in the case of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, it simply reflects the story’s central point, which is that life, at least up until the moment it’s decisively not, is just a recursive collection of new starts. You live a little; you fail a lot; you recover and try again.
On paper—or, better yet, on the kinds of video game screens both Zevin’s characters and her target readers are familiar with—this is an easy enough lesson to understand. But manipulated as it is by Zevin in Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, the narrative not just jumping back and forth in the timeline of Sam and Sadie’s friendship, but bobbing and weaving through their (critically limited) perspectives on the same, it becomes utterly devastating.
I mean this literally. When I say I haven’t wept as long and as hard at any piece of media in recent memory, I’m not indulging in rhetorical hyperbole: for the last four hours of the book (which, as is my wont, I listened to on audio), I was a complete mess. But it’s not just the snot-provoking kind of devastation that Zevin proves so skilled at developing with this book. Wedged as they are into both the time and the industry that they find themselves in, both Sam and Sadie end up walking through some of the prickliest, most sociologically devastating landscapes of the last few decades, landscapes through which—Zevin being Zevin, and thus a master of the variably unlikable protagonist—neither acquits themselves particularly well.
They are regularly ungenerous (both towards each other and the wider world) when you’d want them to instead extend more grace, and forgiving (same) when you’d want them to show a bit more moral courage. They communicate poorly, when they communicate at all, and miss out on so many exciting opportunities out of sheer pigheadedness. That Sadie’s MIT mentor and emotionally abusive ex-lover Dov is allowed to invade so much of the central team’s story is infuriating, as is the fact that Sam’s roommate and Unfair Games’s wunderkind producer Marx is so often used as a punching bag whenever Sam or Sadie is at their lowest.
But neither of these details is a storytelling failure on Zevin’s part—rather, they’re the point: Sam and Sadie are deeply flawed people; the ‘90s and ‘00s were a deeply flawed time; and the video game industry is, as it has always been, a deeply flawed, misogyny-dominated space. To have rendered any part of Sam’s and Sadie’s story more perfect than would be accurate to historical context (and human nature) would have rendered moot the entire Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow experiment.
That said, how able you are to stomach these darker moments will dictate how able to you are to get through Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow at all, so do take as a content warning the fact that the sweeping scope of Sadie and Sam’s story contains emotional abuse, domestic violence, anti-Semitism, anti-Asian racism, violent homophobia, mass gun violence, referenced abortion, post-partum depression, and several traumatic deaths. Each detail is absolutely necessary to the book’s overall success, but especially in the bruise-tender moment so much of the world is in right now, you’d be forgiven for looking over that list and giving yourself some space before diving in.
If you are in a place to open yourself up to the devastating beauty of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, though, let me end with the recommendation that you give the audio version a try. Narrated primarily by Jennifer Kim, with a brief assist in the “NPC” chapter by Only Murders in the Building’s Julian Cihi, the complex, perspective-shifting format Zevin uses to map out Sam and Sadie’s friendship is made immanently navigable.
Kim’s approach to character work leans more on subtle shifts in energy and nuanced accents than in big vocal modulations, which for a story as bold and shape-changing as Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is precisely what’s needed. What’s more, when you start weeping like ten hours in, you won’t have to risk soddening up the pages of a pristine hardcover. Better yet, you can listen and play Emily Blaster at the same time, which, let’s be honest, is exactly what Sam and Sadie (and Marx!) would only want.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She
can be found @AlexisKG.