Justin Warren, the protagonist of Nashville writer Lauren Thoman’s debut novel, I’ll Stop the World, finds himself in a bit of a pickle. It seems he has suddenly time-traveled, through no fault of his own, back to the 1985 version of his hometown:
I slept in Rose’s car last night, tossing fitfully in the back seat, jerking awake at every sound, expecting to open my eyes to a hospital, or a riverbed, or the afterlife, or anything that made more sense than this, but I remained stubbornly here, two decades before I was born.
Justin is a senior in high school with a hopeless crush on his best friend, a dead-end job, a dysfunctional family, and no prospects for the future (no pun intended). He fears that he “came from the factory defective.” The last thing he remembers is driving his car off Wilson Bridge on his way home from the annual fall pep rally.
Fellow high school senior Rose Yin has problems of her own, including her own secret crush, a troubled relationship with her stepsister, and the feeling that she’s merely “a footnote in other people’s stories.” When she drives her car across the same bridge on her way home from the same rally in 1985, she narrowly avoids hitting Justin lying on the road. When she stops to help him, they begin to share information with predictably confusing results.
When the sheriff’s deputy arrives and threatens to arrest Justin, Rose must decide what to do, which is how she finds herself “lying to a police officer, all to help a complete stranger who thought he was from the future. If anyone found out about this, she’d be grounded for the rest of her life. … And that was a best-case scenario, assuming this guy didn’t kill her and dump her in the river. But she couldn’t just sit there and watch him get arrested. Not when there was a small but insistent part of her that was — inexplicably — sure he was telling the truth.”
From that point on, Justin and Rose resolve to team up and find out why Justin has been snatched from his own time and deposited into the past. Rose believes he’s there to prevent the deaths of his grandparents, who are due to perish in a fire within a week of Justin’s arrival, if the events of his own timeline hold true. But even the stalwart Rose has her doubts: “God didn’t send people back in time for no reason. Or even for small reasons. At least, she didn’t think that was how God worked. … Assuming, of course, it was God. And not just some random freak accident like Justin thought.”
As they strategize and attempt to gather evidence, they must also run interference with Rose’s family and friends, who are skeptical of her story that Justin is a secret pen pal who simply dropped in unannounced for a few days. Her stepmother is running for mayor against a ruthless opponent who will use any excuse to cast aspersions against her family, including the color of their skin. (Rose’s father is Asian and her stepfamily is Black, while Justin is white.) As if that weren’t enough to worry about, the usual tensions and strains of high school are also on their minds, especially imagining what life will be like after graduation and navigating their journey toward independence.
But Justin has the worst of it, not knowing whether he will ever see his own home and family again. “Something about the word — home — snags like a thorn. All I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember was a life other than the one I had. But since I knew it wasn’t possible, I never allowed myself to hope. Then somehow, I got my wish. And now all I want is to go back. How messed up is that?” Thoman has crafted a satisfying time-twisty murder mystery — with plenty of suspicious characters — that is sure to keep readers guessing and second-guessing all the way through to its thrilling conclusion.
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.