Another book that came from the recommendation of a fellow book blogger, and another book down from my TBR! This was checked out from the library ALL. SUMMER. LONG (you go, local kids!!!), but now that they’re back in school, Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds (Macmillan Children’s Books, 2019) was back on the shelf and subsequently in my enormous heap of library books.
Jack King is the king of Almost, never quite reaching his goal no matter how hard he tries. Years of longing after his best female friend, who is (conveniently? inconveniently) dating his best male friend, have, however, been entirely wiped out by Jack’s attendance at a party during his college visit. There, he meets Kate, with whom he shares an immediate and nearly tangible connection. Hoping to leave ‘almost’ in the dust, Jack begins a slow, easy relationship with Kate, but of course nothing could be that simple.
It turns out that Kate’s sick- really sick- and suddenly, with a speed that Jack can barely comprehend, she’s dead. It’s almost more than Jack can take- until all at once, he’s thrown back in time to the night that he and Kate met. Can he prevent her death? Is that what he’s supposed to do? Or could his best friends, Franny and Jillian, need a little help too? It’s Groundhog Day for the YA set as Jack battles time, over and over again, to finally ditch that King of Always mantle.
If you enjoy that classic Bill Murray film, or even if you’ve ever wished you could have a do-over, this book is worth looking into. Jack is extremely likable as a character; he never quite measures up to what he truly wants to be, and I think that’s something that so many of us can relate to, no matter what our age. His relationships with his best friends are endearing and supportive- we’re talking serious friend goals here (with the exception, of course, the timeline where Jack makes a few decisions that affect Franny negatively, but to his credit, he learns from this), and his commitment to Kate undeniable. The supporting adult cast is also really amazing. Jack’s parents are older and are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary during the story, and while Jack on occasion gets grossed out by their physical affection, it’s obvious that he appreciates what their long-lasting love has given him. Franny (short for Francisco) lives with his abuela, who is a pillar of support, and even his mostly-deadbeat, fresh-out-of-prison father has an admirable character arc throughout the course of the book. Mr. Reynolds really hit a grand slam here in showing how much change is possible, even for adults who have been hardened by time and circumstance.
I love the concept of short-distance time travel, as well as repeated days and situations. While Bill Murphy kept waking up on the same day at the end of every day, Jack lives out a period of four months, time and time again, in order to get everything right- and there’s even a time when he goes FULL Bill Murray and kind of throws his hands up and does basically everything wrong, which I seriously loved. This is the only sci-fi element of the whole story, and it was so enjoyable to read.
And I can’t finish this review without mentioning how much I enjoyed a book with an entirely non-white main cast. (I’m trying to think of any side characters who were mentioned as being white, and none are coming to mind. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong and I’ll amend this post!) The skin color or ancestry of the characters isn’t necessarily a focus of the story; it’s just part of who they are, and these are just black characters living their lives (lives steeped in time travel, of course!). The only other book I can think of that I’ve read that can claim an all (or mostly) black cast of characters is The Gift Giver by Joyce Hansen (again, please feel free to correct me in the comments if you’ve read this book and I’m wrong; it’s been a few years since my last reread of this, but from what I recall, the cast was mostly black), which I read repeatedly and loved as a child. Would Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins count here? I can’t remember if there were any named white characters in that story. Reading over my review of that book makes me want to read more from Ms. Bev! I digress… The books differ in that The Gift Giver takes place in the Bronx, amongst families who are struggling financially, whereas in Opposite of Always, these are just middle class black families living their lives. While Franny’s abuela works multiple jobs and is often late to his games because of this, it’s never focused on heavily, and it’s a nice change from so many of the books published when I was young, which strayed heavily into ‘The Dangers of a Single Story‘ territory whenever a non-white character showed up. A book like Opposite of Always is a huge deal just for its cast alone, and it makes my heart sing to know that it’s been so popular.
So, to recap: YA. Time travel with a Groundhog Day-bent. Romance. Saving the girl. Saving friends. Making things right and getting chance after chance to do it. A cast of characters that makes this book stand out. Sharp, snappy writing with a sense of humor and captivating characters. What’s not to love? Don’t let the size fool you; this heavy tome will have you flipping pages like the wind, desperate to know if Jack ever manages to work things out. And if you’re into reading books before the movie comes out, GET ON THIS TRAIN NOW, BECAUSE THEY’RE MAKING A MOVIE OUT OF IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!