In Justin A. Reynold’s debut YA time-travel romance, Opposite of Always, Jack King is a high school senior who is wise beyond his years–and whether it’s a result of his ability to time travel or just his naturally big heart, he possesses a deep and assured understanding of love’s enduring nature.
He also, of course, possesses all the doubts and worries that come with being on the edge of graduation and a new life at college. He begins the novel as a self-proclaimed “authority on Almost” and feels as though he never quite reaches his full potential. Everything–from hobbies to sports to romance–seems like it’s within his grasp but ultimately manages to slip through his fingers. When Jack falls for Kate, it’s his first real chance at having something, a love all his own. The only problem is that six months after Jack and Kate meet, Kate dies–but Reynolds doesn’t let the story end there. As soon as Kate’s life ends, Jack goes whirling back in time to when their relationship begins, on the steps at a college house party. And this is when Jack has to start making choices.
In many ways, it’s the chance we all wish we could have after we lose someone. Jack is offered the opportunity to go back, do it better, do it right. He is able to process his grief by physically reliving those crucial six months, and as he works to save Kate in the time after their meeting and before her death, the novel fills with so much life.
Jack’s love for his best friends, Franny and Jillian, is radiant, and each character’s joys and despairs are captivating. Reynolds takes the time and attention to portray many types of struggle: Jack losing Kate is one hardship, along with parents leaving, parents in prison, and illness. We encounter all the complexities of a group of young people grappling with their own hope for the future, and specifically the hopefulness of Jack to give his friends, the people he loves, all that they deserve, and to be everything he has the capacity to be for them.
The novel contains many small life-saving moments, and they’re not always what one would expect them to be. They’re hidden in scenes of spontaneously yelling with joy while “running for our lives” after a concert, or going to prom to “dance our ugly dances with unrelenting gusto, as if we’ve just discovered that ugly dancing saves lives, and we are determined to save every life that we can.”
In moments of joy in the present tense, in these cusp-of-adulthood friendships, the love is so big and all-consuming that for Jack, “it’s like the next three decades of our lives together are revealed–that if there was ever any doubt that we’d always be friends, even after we went on to become busy lawyers and never-a-free-moment doctors and volunteers at our kids’ schools–all doubt is erased right then, expelled forever in that moment.”
It is this kind of great love that makes Opposite of Always such a special debut. Reynolds has given Jack a relentless optimism that is a pleasure to be confronted with. Jack relives events leading up to a tragedy determined and convinced that he can find something new and good within that time. Reynolds writes with a unique kind of joy that cannot be brushed aside as naïve–he is fully aware of the consequences of loss, but his confidence in the worthiness of love and life barrels on past this and easily pulls readers into believing that this kind of love will go ever onwards, even when it’s out of sight.
FICTION – YOUNG ADULT
Opposite of Always
By Justin A. Reynolds
Katherine Tegen Books
Published March 5, 2019
Megan Otto is a freelance arts and environmental writer specializing in content related to ethical storytelling, underrepresented voices, climate justice, and the arts. Based in Portland, Oregon, she loves visiting both the mountains and the ocean in her free time. Learn more about her writing at megotto.com or find her @megsotto on Twitter.