A copy of “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” stands on a desk in the Peninsula Clarion office on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

A copy of “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” stands on a desk in the Peninsula Clarion office on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Off the Shelf: Coffee shop time travelers leave reader cold

“Before the Coffee Gets Cold” is the debut novel of author and playwright Toshikazu Kawaguchi

It’s one of those books that my Instagram and TikTok algorithms put consistently on my feed. It seemed universally appealing — the white and turquoise cover became instantly recognizable to me — and I felt lucky to find a discounted copy at a bookstore in Tulsa last week.

“Before the Coffee Gets Cold” is the debut novel of author and playwright Toshikazu Kawaguchi and was adapted for the screen in 2018. It’s succeeded by two other books, “Tales From the Cafe” and “Before Your Memory Fades,” which have the same story model, but a different cast of characters.

The premise of the book is simple: visit the cafe, sit in the chair and go back (or forward) in time. You have until your freshly poured cup of coffee gets cold to do whatever you need to do before returning to the present. There are stipulations, of course. You can only visit people who have visited the cafe, for example, and you’re not allowed to get out of your chair while traveling in time.

Maybe it’s my general inability to understand time travel as a narrative plot or maybe it’s my distaste for magical realism, but this novel didn’t live up to the hype.

The book is broken up into four tales of cafe patrons, all of whom use the time-traveling chair. Across the book’s roughly 270 pages, readers follow, among others, a nurse who goes back in time to visit her husband before he developed Alzheimer’s disease and a woman who travels to the future to talk to her unborn daughter.

While the stories are compelling — posing the kinds of questions real people might want answered if time travel were possible — their resolutions leave much to be desired.

The most recent installment in the “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” series was published last August and is called “Before Your Memory Fades.” It is about a different coffee shop in Japan that also allows patrons to travel in time. The narrative structure of each book certainly provides fodder for more content — surely you can never run out of stories to tell about people traveling and time is infinite.

Unfortunately, I don’t see any of the other series installments in my future.

“Before the Coffee Gets Cold” was originally published in 2015 as “Coffee Ga Samenai Uchimi” by Sunmark Publishing, Inc. in Tokyo, Japan. It was first published as “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” in 2019 in the United Kingdom by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, and was translated from Japanese by Geoffrey Tousselot.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

Off the Shelf is a bimonthly literature column written by the staff of the Peninsula Clarion that features reviews and recommendations of books and other texts through a contemporary lens.

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