Somewhere in Time by Richard Matheson
This review covers the book – I’ll do the movie another time!
Somewhere in Time is “…the story of a love which transcends time” (Richard Matheson, author).
Richard Collier has a temporal tumour and has been given a short time to live. Quitting his job he flips a coin and decides to drive to the Hotel del Coronado. During his stay there he sees a picture of Elise Mckenna, an actress from the 1890s who he then falls in love with. He researches her life in detail where he discovers that Elise distanced herself from men and relationships – that is until one brief episode after which she withdrew into herself and became a ghost of the person she used to be.
Richard believes that he is the ‘episode’ and determines to travel back in time to meet the woman he loves, and when he hopes that not only will his love be reciprocated, but that he will not be the cause of Elise’s unhappiness.
Thanks to an online discussion I learned some new and interesting things about Somewhere in Time.
It is not, as I had thought, a rewrite of Bid Time Return which was published in 1975 by the same author. Rather, it is simply a republication (with a different title) which was made after the movie was released in 1980. (Incidentally, the movie was not initially well received by critics, and it wasn’t until the DVD was released that a healthy following developed.)
Time travel books are often and irritatingly first person, but in Somewhere in Time, Richard Matheson arguably is Richard Collier. According to Portland Center Stage Matheson was captivated by a photo of Maude Adams. This was the inspiration of Bid Time Return, and whilst researching Maude’s life he checked into the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego and basically wrote the novel from there from his dictated notes.
I watched the movie several years ago, and I loved it. It was natural that I then followed up with reading the book, and I loved that too. I’d have given it 5/5 stars.
I decided to read the book again thanks to an online discussion and trouble with an ebook, but the circumstances under which I came to actually (re)reading Somewhere in Time are worryingly coincidental – I found myself in a hotel room (like Collier) dictating notes (like Collier) to my phone and quenching my thirst with water in a coke bottle
Did you catch what’s written on the side of the bottle?
Richard Collier is a writer, and as we’ve already discussed Somewhere in Time is written in the first person. It would be natural to expect a lot.
The novel begins with a prologue which takes the form of a letter from Richard’s brother which sets the scene.
This sort of approach is quite common (e.g. The Planet of the Apes, The Time Ships). I often dislike prologues because I find them a lazy approach to beginning a novel, almost as if the author doesn’t know how or where (or when) to start, and they come across as the author trying to be unduly clever (I’m thinking here of Baxter in The Time Ships, though the prologue was necessary (and very well done) in The Planet of the Apes.
I particularly dislike Matheson’s prologue. It adds nothing, save an indirect explanation to the writing style in the following pages. Additionally it ties in with the disastrous epilogue.
The story itself starts with disjointed sentences and paragraphs. It reads rushed, and instead of a flow of images and descriptions the reader is bombarded with fragments of ideas. The prologue describes how these are Richard’s dictated notes, so in this sense some realism is injected into the novel as a whole, but it makes getting stuck into the novel difficult.
Thankfully, once Richard has traveled back in time he no longer has his tape recorder so reverts to normal writing, and this is what we are able to read. That said, Richard mentions that he writes in shorthand. Not that I’m advocating it, but given that we’re so cruelly subjected to Richard’s dictated notes, we might expect that we’d be reading his shorthand too…
I like epilogues as they’re a gentle or thought provoking conclusion to a novel. Sadly, Matheson’s is neither. It suggests an alternate version of events which takes away the magic of Richard’s time travel romance. Actually, it read rather like forcing jelly through a keyhole and I think would have been better left out altogether and left to the reader to deduce or reject. Although cynical of Richard’s account, there is a touch of brotherly love and affection which was a welcome read.
All that said…I found that I felt more for Richard as a character after I had read the epilogue than during the reading of his own notes, so maybe the prologue and epilogue served a useful purpose after all!
Elise and Richard’s relationship
Being a romance novel, I don’t think it would be unfair of me to comment on the relationship between Richard and Elise; in a word, it’s…immature.
I read this section with extreme awkwardness…how can you fall in love with someone from looks alone, that too, from a picture first, then later from a (predatory) distance?? Is this love or lust? Indeed, this was one of the discussion points in the Goodreads time travel group book discussion.
I cant help reading this thinking how fragile and delicate this ‘relationship’ is. It feels unstable, chaotic and top heavy…that only the slightest nudge will dissolve this union and send it into oblivion. In a way, I guess this is what eventually happened.
The relationship is simply too unrealistic, let alone childish and shallow; each wanting it to work but without a firm basis or foundation, just mystery and unearned trust. Each character seems to spend most of their relationship convincing each other of their love for each other. It’s contrived at best, and focusses on physical features of the other.
Clearly this ‘love’ is more about physical attraction than anything else.
Maybe I’m over sensitive as I’m not physically attractive (ask any of the girls I went to school with). In fact, it brings to mind the teenage angst of fancying someone from a distance and hoping somehow for reciprocation. For me it never was but it was for pretty boy Collier.
Or perhaps I view this romance with scepticism because I’m older and I’m wiser – at least in the sense that I’m married and I’m intensely in love with my wife. I know what love is! 🙂
How on Earth could this relationship possibly have come into being, let alone have any future (or past)?
A gypsy woman and a fortune teller was too convenient a way to open up the idea to Elise to be open to a relationship with a man. Recall that Elise is from the 1890s and stooped in a frosty and frigid culture where women take the inferior position. The predictions for the future do strengthen idea of predestination; these things will happen. This is in opposition to Richard’s research into past…where these things had already happened. I suppose this was the most interesting aspect of the romance.
Richard’s return to the present is literally a heart breaker for him, though I don’t understand why he didn’t try going back again. (I think he did in the movie but I can’t remember.) It’s sadly timed to occur just after he and Elise slept together, so I’m sure would have had negative repercussions regarding his intentions. This was never mentioned in the novel; the primary negative motivation for Richard’s interest in Elise was thought to be to gain her wealth.
The time travel element
I’m saving the best for last – the time travel element saves the book!
Time travel method
The time travel method was through self hypnosis, a method inspired from a book by J. B. Priestley called Man and Time (which I will have to check out!). Richard read this book whilst researching how to get himself from 1972 and back to November 1896. It was interesting to read some of the practical difficulties which he faced whilst trying to immerse himself and his thoughts.
Self hypnosis is the same time travel method used in Time and Again (Jack Finney), published some 5 years before Bid Time Return. (As a point of note, Wikipedia mentions that as a nod to Finney, the movie features a time travel expert called Dr. Gerard Finney). I think it’s much better implemented in Somewhere in Time.
Whether self hypnosis is a form of quantum jumping I’m not sure, but time travel using the mind and not a machine does allow for a less scientific approach to time travel than in other novels which use time machines – explanation of the mechanics of time travel with the mind tend to be rather black box (though with the notable exception of the upcoming The Mindtraveler). Maybe this is set to change with the world’s first school in human powered time travel!
Using a coin to begin and end things was a nice touch. Although clearly not a time machine in itself, the coin served both as a symbol and as a trigger to reverse the backward time travel mechanism.
Richard sees from the old hotel guestbook that he’d signed it 76 years ago. This was the proof that his attempts at going back in time will succeed, and armed with this knowledge he continues in his endeavours to travel back in time.
This leads to the question as to whether there is any choice in our actions? He felt he was predestined to have a relationship with Elise (as opposed to Elise’s predictions that she was going to have one. She couldn’t escape her destiny; Richard couldn’t escape from his past.
This perhaps is crystallised in the signature with which Richard signs the guestbook – he’d seen that he had signed it in a different manner than he normally would have, so when he goes back in history and signs his name he makes sure that he signs in the same unorthodox way. Similarly, he ensures that he is checked into the room he had seem previously (i.e. ‘back’ in the future) in the guestbook.
This is the classic ontological paradox!
Whether it is an intended pun or not, I am unsure. But I did note that Richard was suffering from a temporal tumor! 😉
As you can see from the top picture, the front cover is a bit ‘sissy’ with a soft focus photo of Elise. Whilst books shouldn’t really be judged by their covers, often their readers are, and as such, I was squirming a little bit when reading this copy in the train. Thankfully most of my reading was done in a hotel!
Perhaps this suggests the publisher’s target audience – fans of a romance more than time travel fans? In this sense I’m the complete opposite, being a fan of the time travel and not of (in this case) the romance!
Talking of publishers, I found the blurb on the back cover inaccurate and misleading.
Richard’s “fascination” is not the time travel method, and the “tide of history” is not the stumbling block for the romance. Ah well. I guess this has been written to lure romantics to read about a terrible and unrealistic romance.
Memoirs of Elise
The untimely return to the present (or future, from Elise’s point of view), must have surely been problematic. Indeed, Richard noted that history recorded it as so. David L. Gurnee has written a book titled Memoirs of Elise which is a short novella (also written in diary form) which describes the life of Elise between the moment she loses Richard, and when she meets him again as an old woman.
It’s a piece of fan fiction I’d be very interested in reading for two reasons. The first is that it would provide a little bit of closure to the novel, and secondly, to see if it would provide any depth to the romance. Somewhere in Time is written from Richard’s point of view; Memoirs of Elise is written from Elise’s (of course!). Two sides to every story.
Sadly the price tag is prohibitive, at least at the moment.
Summary and availability
Somewhere in Time is a time travel romance which takes some getting into with the abrupt writing style, but about halfway it becomes more tolerable. Superficially the romance works, and the time travel aspect is simple which would make this novel an interesting read for romance and time travel fans alike.
On my second reading, I’m downgrading my rating to 4/5 stars – whilst I like the time travel element, I was cringing during the read of the romance and it simply made me feel uncomfortable.
From memory, the movie is much better – I’ll re-watch and review that later!
Somewhere in Time is available from Amazon.com (affiliated link).
| 5* Excellent! | 4* Good | 3* OK | 2* Not good | 1* Crud |