At first, I wasn’t interested in reading Before The Coffee Gets Cold because every description I read sounded so twee and so inspirational. I thought it would lead up to an inspiring life lesson about making every moment count, and, ugh, no thanks.
And now, I’m glad I read it, but how do I make a book about time-traveling to have one meaningful conversation over a cup of coffee not sound twee?
Before The Coffee Gets Cold turns out to be a gently supernatural story about memories and love. A forgettable hole-in-the-wall cafe has a strange ability: Visitors can sit in one specific chair, and have one visit to the past, that lasts just as long as one cup of coffee. There are several other rules, like the visit can only take place in the coffeeshop and that the special seat is usually taken by a woman reading alone and drinking her coffee.
When the reading woman was first described, I let out an audible sigh. Oh, to be sitting alone, indoors, in a cafe, reading a good book. What a freaking dream, in covid life, to just go out for a casual reason, to be alone in a crowd again. Strangely, in this novel about short visits to the past, a minor character gave me such an intense, sensory reminder of dropping into a coffeeshop in a pre-pandemic past. It’s later explained that she was a ghost, someone who had overstayed her visit to her dead husband, breaking another rule of the time-travel cafe.
Before The Coffee Gets Cold tells four connected stories of time-travel conversations, but leaves the impression that these are just a few of the quietly pivotal conversations in the coffeeshop. Coffee travelers don’t go back in time to give dramatic warnings of the future, or make massive life resets.
But there are small resets for smaller regrets. Each story hinges on a few honest minutes to say something you should have said or ask for something you needed. One story is about a husband and wife separated by his growing Alzheimer’s, another about two sisters separated by a misunderstanding. Each visit to the past is both gentle and tense, as characters try to express themselves and to understand each other better, in these short chats. The coffeeshop staff are a married couple and their young cousin, and they all treat the time travel as part of their business, alongside brewing and serving coffee. There are no huge happy endings, either, a visit to the past doesn’t magically bring back lost loved ones, but there can be a new sense of peace and hopefulness.
Before The Coffee Gets Cold pairs well with Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, for a similar sense of a magical, tucked-away community, and with some of the best thoughtful Doctor Who storylines about visiting the past and maybe making it better.