Book Review: Ninety Days in the 90s
Reviewed by Erica Ball
A creative spin on the time-travel story
Ninety Days in the 90s is the story of Darby Derrex, who finds herself unexpectedly running her late uncle’s record store, mostly by default. Since her Wall Street career and engagement have both gone bust, she has returned to her adopted home of Chicago to figure out what’s next.
When she comes across a mysterious device and the possibility that she can time travel with a mysterious subway line, she makes a bold move. She makes the choice to go back to the last time she made a big change in her life, to see what would happen if she’d made a different choice.
Darby chooses to return to 1996, as that’s the year she left Chicago to pursue a very different career than the one she had started as a local music writer. Contributing to that decision was a failed relationship and other bumps in her personal life. But back in 1996 Darby soon finds joy in the things that she missed out on by leaving—genuine friendships, a job she enjoyed, and Chicago itself.
Like the protagonist, this is a relatively low-key story. The time travel is the catalyst for it, rather than the focus. The plot is character-centered, and it explores the use of time travel by someone who really just wants to make for herself a good life, instead of the mess she has found herself in. She wants a life that fits her as she is and not what she thought she should be.
There’s little to no fanfare or mind-bending paradoxes about how the time travel works. The steps are simple: get on the train, get off the train at the year you want. The month and day stay the same. Using the device, a traveler can choose to remain the age they are currently or become the age they are at the time they are traveling to. There cannot be two of the same person at a given time, so there’s no danger of running into another version of yourself. This simplicity allows for more attention to be paid to Darby and her very personal motivations for doing it.
In addition to the time travel, there are a number of flashbacks in Darby’s story, and scenes jump around in time. There is potential for confusion here, but they do an intriguing job of filling in holes in the reader’s understanding of Darby and her story.
Despite the potential disruption in flow, this is an interesting choice. It makes the narrative unfold thematically rather than chronologically and adds a sense similar to an unreliable narrator. The reader discovers they are not being told the whole story at once, and further information changes our view of characters, their behavior, and their motivations.
The characters are some of the strongest parts of this story—quite fitting as it centers so much on personal growth. Many of the characters have become friends despite being very different from one another, or stay friends even if they find each other obnoxious. Others have to put up with roommates that drive them crazy.
Something that distinguishes this from other time travel stories is that Darby is not the only one playing with time here. She actually bumps into other people doing it too, making us wonder what these other time travelers are up to and what their stories might be.
Darby’s romantic relationships are sensitively depicted. Darby doesn’t really define herself according to who she finds attractive. As with other women in the novel, she sometimes dates women and sometimes dates men. Further, the tragedies in her past that are still coloring her present are not explicitly tied up in her sexual orientation. So, in many ways, it does a thoughtful job of normalizing what should not be a controversial life. Darby is just trying to find a good life and figure out how to live it. To find a job that she likes and someone she wants to be with.
Ninety Days in the 90s is ostensibly about music, and there’s plenty for music fans to sink their teeth into. Ultimately though, it’s a novel about the moments in life when someone chooses who they want to become. How those opportunities don’t necessarily have to be obvious ones and can occur on otherwise ordinary days.
It seeks to answer the commonly asked question: if you could go back in time, what would you do differently?
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Science Fiction / Time Travel
Print Length: 356 pages
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