Inventive, heartfelt, and surprisingly quiet, Opposite of Always uses a time-loop plot to zoom in on personal relationships and character journeys. Four stars for lovable, realistic characters and sneak-up-on-you feels.

Jack Ellison King. King of Almost.

He almost made valedictorian, he almost made varsity, he almost got the girl . . . 

When Jack and Kate meet at a party, bonding until sunrise over their mutual love of Froot Loops and their favorite flicks, Jack knows he’s falling—hard. Soon she’s meeting his best friends, Jillian and Franny, and Kate wins them over as easily as she did Jack. Jack’s curse of almost is finally over.

But this love story is . . . complicated. It is an almost happily ever after. Because Kate dies. And their story should end there. Yet Kate’s death sends Jack back to the beginning, the moment they first meet, and Kate’s there again. Beautiful, radiant Kate. Healthy, happy, and charming as ever. Jack isn’t sure if he’s losing his mind. Still, if he has a chance to prevent Kate’s death, he’ll take it. Even if that means believing in time travel. However, Jack will learn that his actions are not without consequences. And when one choice turns deadly for someone else close to him, he has to figure out what he’s willing to do—and let go—to save the people he loves.

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The things is, you don’t forfeit your whole world to prove your feelings to someone. You bring your worlds together. You get more world, not less.”

~ ~ ~

It’s important to go into this book with the right expectations. You’d be excused for thinking (as I did) that Opposite of Always is going to be high-concept and twist-forward, since the synopses introduces you to a sci-fi time-loop scenario.

The SFF framing is there, sure, but that’s what it is–a frame. For all purposes, this is a quiet, character-driven YA contemporary that just happens to have a time-loop element.

Groundhog Day gif

If approached this way, I think that Justin Reynold’s use of the structure is brilliant. It lends life-and-death stakes to essential coming-of-age themes about growth and forgiveness.

We’ve all known (or been) a teenager that falls in love for the first time and completely forgets how to person. They want to pour all their time and energy into loving this person who is now the most important thing in their life… and that can spell disaster for their other relationships and responsibilities.

Opposite of Always dramatizes that conflict through a close-up on a few months in the life (sort of) of Jack King, who falls head-over-heels for sweet, witty Kate. While Jack has a supportive family and close friends, those relationships are a minefield of potential mistakes. As Jack takes his eyes off being good to his family and friends in favor of doting on Kate, things start to unravel.

Until (twist that we know is coming from chapter 1 so this doesn’t count as a spoiler) Kate dies from a chronic illness. (We don’t find out what the illness is for a long long time, and I’m not sure why. That mystery gets a lot of build-up but doesn’t actually have much relevance.)

Sent months back to the moment he met Kate, Jack lives through the same months over and over as he struggles to do everything at once.

~ ~ ~

I completely empathized with Jack’s sense the there must be a way to do things right, even in the fact of evidence suggesting it might not be possible.

Jack risks everything else to try to save Kate, watching the rest of his life fall apart as he flakes and lies and back-stabs until he has nothing left but Kate, who seems doomed to die anyway.

Yes, there’s a lot that’s Russian Doll about this book. In fact, even before I read it, I added it to me list of books to read after watching Russian Doll.

What I’ve just written probably sounds like a suspenseful, intense read, but it really wasn’t. I never felt like I was reading a thriller or a sci-fi. It felt like reading a really great contemporary, one that was digging into an impossible problem with depth and compassion.

I adore those characters. Jack makes a charming, flawed, lovable protagonist, and Reynold’s prose drew me in. You can tell Reynolds is trying hard to get the teenage voice right, so Jack’s POV is a little sweaty and overwritten, but it’s also clever and adorable.

Reynolds (or is it Jack?) seems to have a thing for vivid smilies, which punched up the book’s humor and heart at points. There’s one about a squirrel in the middle of the road that I can’t stop thinking about.

~ ~ ~

My biggest disappointment in this book is definitely the female characters.

This book is about Jack embracing his potential and responsibilities (and, you could argue, about men of color more generally embracing their potential and responsibilities, given the emphasis on the development of Jack’s male friend and their fathers). It’s a very specific perspective, so I understand that this book can’t be all things to all people.

But this journey, this struggle to balance your wants with your responsibilities… it’s framed in the book as the job of men. Only the male characters seem to experience or comment on this struggle.

The female characters are the objects in the scenario. They are the desires and the responsibilities the men are struggling with. Kate, Jack’s female friend, and Jack’s mother are sexy lamps in the story–they have no agency of their own.

In fact, there’s a girlfriend-stealing story beat that’s played completely straight. One character accuses another of “stealing” his girlfriend, and that’s never pushed back on. Which it can’t be, because that’s exactly what happened. The stolen girl never gets her own motivations or values. She just gets kissed and automatically transfers to the new guy. The characters (and Reynolds, it seems) accept that a girl is something that can be stolen. It was a pretty gross storyline that I was surprised to see in a book published in 2019.

Russia Doll gif - fuck it
I’m thinking of writing a separate post comparing Opposite of Always and Russian Doll, which attack the “Groundhog Day” set-up from new and fascinating directions that I think have a lot to do with identity -putting a woman of a young Black man in the scenario instead of the usual white man.

That said, I enjoyed the read. While I found myself drifting at times (the book spends way too much time on minutia) I finished the book feeling very gently moved. Opposite of Always is a difficult concept for a novel but seems perfectly positioned for an adaptation. A movie would work great, sure, but my theatre-kid self wants to see this as a play. With the small number of characters and dialogue-forward story, this would transfer to the stage very well.

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