Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi – Book Review

Oh my, this review is bound to be a bit different. I’m also not planning to spend a whole lot of time on this one. Lately I feel like I’ve read a lot of great books. And, by nature, I’m a generous reader and reviewer. So it might surprise you to learn that in some instances I can become quite fussy and ill-tempered when displeased by a book. Buckle up and grab a cup of coffee so it can warm you, because it’s about to get a bit chilly.

Synopsis

Tucked away somewhere in Tokyo, there’s a cozy little windowless coffee shop (can you say death trap in a fire??) that somehow doesn’t ever get hot even in the most sweltering parts of summer (yeah, I’m still not sure why but maybe I just missed it because that was one of the moments I stopped listening). Sorry, I’ve devolved into rambling side notes already. Anyway, despite the fact that this coffee shop is supposedly famous for allowing you to go back in time, there’s never anyone there except like two people in addition to the staff. That alone makes no sense at all, even if the rules are annoying enough to force some people away. If you sit in one particular seat and drink a cup of coffee, you can visit a particular moment in the past as long as you develop a very clear picture of the point in time before the coffee gets poured. There’s a gaggle of crazy rules you must follow, but as long as you follow them you can visit the past to accomplish nothing but merely visiting the past. Over the course of the novel, we’re introduced to a handful of people who do this and get to know their stories.

Review

Ok. This is a very interesting premise. It’s not the first time I’ve encountered the coffee shop/diner time travel trope. It was much more well done in Stephen King’s 11/22/63, though in other respects they are very different stories, and the mode of time travel was different. Despite the interesting premise, the execution of this novel was severely lacking. It was not at all well-paced. Despite being exceptionally short, I found myself getting extremely bogged down and frustrated. Every time I had to listen to the list of time travel rules over again, I got progressively more irritated. I realize each individual character needs to be reminded of the rules. As the reader, however, I do not because I literally just heard them about 10 pages ago, so please don’t make me sit through it again! When Kazu says, “Do you remember the rules,” I want to hear a defiant yes and then let’s get the show on the road! That wasn’t the only thing in this book that was needlessly repetitive, it’s just the most memorable.

As for characters, I thought there were a few interesting story lines. I just felt so disconnected from all of them. It took about half the book before I could even keep the characters straight. They weren’t well presented and were very flatly drawn. I kind of felt like the woman in the white dress who was distracted by the fact she needed to pee and wanted everybody to move out of her damn seat so she could go read something interesting. It wasn’t until the very end that something slightly interesting happened, but it didn’t wind up being much of a surprise. I saw it coming well before I should have.

Here’s the thing that I want to really gripe about. You can return to the past. You can do this over and over if you want to, as often as one woman needs to pee. So why did so many characters act like it was the end of the world if they didn’t say things exactly right the first time? All you have to do is wait for the next potty break, hop back in the time chair and try it again. Don’t sit there risking your coffee getting cold because feel like the world is ending if you go back too soon. Such a big plot hole!

EDIT: So after our discussion at book club, I learned that there was evidently one small mention of a rule they chose not to tell all customers about (even though reading the rules seemed to be of utmost importance) that you could only return to the past one time. So I was wrong on that above thing. However, of everyone at book club, half of us caught that and half of us didn’t. So I’m still going to call foul on the fact that this was a very important detail that was so glossed over that it could be missed very easily. Though, my apologies for missing it. Carry on with the original review…

Another big plot hole is the fact that there’s even a rule stating that you can only meet people while visiting the past who have visited the cafe. Well, you also can’t get up from your seat, so unless someone picks up the seat with you in it and sets it outside, that’s a bit of a moot point, isn’t it? And so much unexplained stuff. Who was the woman in the white dress? Why don’t we get her story? And why couldn’t we get a birds eye view of what happens when someone takes the place of the lady in the white dress? Now that would have been interesting. Better yet, let’s get this story through the lens of the woman in the white dress. It would become a gripping Japanese horror tale in which a woman stuck in the hell of her own torment only able to drink coffee and pee and watch boring people do boring stuff has to come to terms with an eternity of misery. Maybe she somehow finds a way to manipulate the present, leading someone else into the trap of letting the coffee get cold, and the cycle starts anew. Muahahahaha…

I realize that time travel is a very difficult concept to bring to page or screen. There are automatically plot holes that can’t be filled, issues that can’t be explained away. In this case, the rule about not being able to change the present by going to the past is simply unrealistic. Any amount of dabbling in the past would be sure to have a rippling effect that would change something. And if you really wanted to get technical, maybe your experiences in the past don’t change the present for the person you met, but they can change the present for YOU. A conversation could and does irrevocably affect the decisions you make from that point on, so by visiting the past you have altered the present as well as the future. But then when you add visiting the future to this book, well now you’ve just thrown all the damn rules out the window. The rules don’t mention the future, and that adds a whole new layer of complexity. And a whole slew of things that now don’t make any sense.

Like I said,this is an interesting concept that had a lot of potential. But a sweet and sad story of these people whose lives were connected by this cafe (though surprisingly lacked any other deep, meaningful connection) got seriously lost in clunky writing and paltry character development. For a book so short, it should never have dragged on and frustrated me quite to the degree it did. I do realize this book is translated from Japanese, so some of the issues could have occurred in translation. But certainly not all.

Anyway, I am sorry. I am sorry that I didn’t like this and I couldn’t find much to talk about that was pleasant. It’s short. That was pleasant, I guess. Now I can move on. 2 Stars.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Pub. date: Dec 6 2015, audio pub Sept 19, 2019 by Picador; ISBN 9781529029581: ; Runtime 6 hrs, 52 min, Read by Arina Li.

About Amy @ A Librarian and Her Books

I'm a law librarian from the state of Missouri and a graduate of Missouri State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia. My real passion is in fiction, which is why I started my blog to share my thoughts with other bibliophiles. I live with my husband and two wonderful children and a collection of furry feline companions.
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9 Responses to Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi – Book Review

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  2. Oh that’s frustrating, sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy this one. All the same, a great review!

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