"I stare at the drain in the center of the concrete floor. It was the first thing I saw when they locked me in this cell, and I've barely looked away since."
Cristin Terrill's All Our Yesterdays was a YA Buzz Title at Book Expo America this year, touted as “Terminator meets The Time Traveler’s Wife”. Needless to say that description made me equally eager and wary to read it: On the one hand, I am a sucker for time travel. On the other hand, past experiences with hyped YA science fiction have been terrible disappointments to me (hi there Matched, Shatter Me and Delirium). Plus let’s be honest: Those lofty, impossible to live-up to comparisons often do books a disservice.
As you can probably imagine, the comparisons to Terminator or Time Traveler’s Wife are not really that apt (but hey, what else is new when it comes to marketing, am I right?), but if comparisons are needed, I’d say this is more like a darker vision of Back to the Future (circa movie 2) than anything else.
It follows two versions of the same character. Em is in a terrible future where she is imprisoned alongside her boyfriend, Finn, and suffering unspeakable torture in the hands of someone she once loved. It’s a future where time travel exists and Em knows quite a lot about it. Marina is in the past, four years before, a privileged rich girl whose greatest worry in the world is whether her best friend, James, can possibly love her as much as she loves him. It’s a past where time travel is only but James’ dream. It is also a past that holds the key to a different future and Em—13 different versions of her—have tried and failed to alter it.
Now Em and Finn are on their 14th attempt, one that comes with a very specific instruction from one of their past selves: “You have to kill him.” They know what they have to do but it’s not going to be easy.
The story alternates between Em and Marina’s perspectives. They are the same character but wholly different. Em is broken but confident, Marina is rich and privileged but with no small degree of self-loathing. One of the biggest draws of the novel is exactly that difference and the way that Em will do anything it takes to make things up to Marina so that she won’t have to go through the same horrors she did. Em’s love for Marina is all the more heart-wrenching because it simply means that she has found love for herself—they are the same person after all. The book is also thought-provoking in the way that it raises questions: Would you do anything to save your past self from disillusionment and hurt even if it means erasing your own existence? Even if it means facing your worst nightmare, who also happens to be your childhood love? In fact, the notions of “greater good” and “good intentions” are thoughtfully examined in Em/Marina’s actions and also the villain’s (if you haven’t committed any crime yet, can you still be guilty of your future actions?).
There is quite a lot to genuinely like here: The romance between Em and Finn is sweet (albeit far too cheesy and PG for two 20-year-olds), the story gains momentum and gravitas toward its second half and the backs and forth between Em and Marina are very engaging. Plus, the time travel premise is really quite cool.
With that said…
Even though the elements of time travel just about hold themselves together, I am not entirely sure that the ending makes sense. As much as I truly appreciated the fact that the author went there (gut- wrenching ending for the win) it relies heavily on the premise put forth here that time is “sentient” and is constantly attempting to course-correct itself (this is why, should Em and Finn be successful in their mission, they will cease to exist) . But it seemed to me that this idea was only applicable when convenient to the plot, but in fairness, this wasn’t enough to detract from my enjoyment of the otherwise solid time-traveling shenanigans.
There were other elements that gave me more cause to pause, though. Even though there is an examination of privilege when it comes to economic and political standing, I think the story misses a beat when it fails to address Marina’s relationship to her Mexican maid, Luz. As the only obvious recurring non-white character, it makes me uncomfortable that Luz is stereotypically portrayed as an uber-dedicated, loyal, motherly figure.
And as much as I truly appreciated Em and Marina as leads and the way Em comes to love herself and find peace with who she was, I hated that she did so by contrasting herself to her two female best friends and by writing them off as shallow, slutty and bitchy. For a book so full of secondary male characters, who are all more powerful and more intelligent than the female characters who seem to be there as props, this comes only to add insult to the injury.
Overall, All Our Yesterdays was a mixed bag: quite entertaining and thoughtful but also awfully oblivious at times.
In Book Smugglerish, a solid 6.5 out of 10.