Book Review: ‘Before the Coffee Gets Cold’

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Photo by Pars Sahin on Unsplash

After seeing this book positively plastered all over ‘bookstagram,’ I knew I had to read it as well. I didn’t know anything about the story other than the short couple of sentences on the back. Its premise sounded way to good, but did the book really live up to expectations?

The story tells the story of a back alley cafe in Tokyo which promises its visitors the opportunity to travel in time (usually in the past).

The vibes of the cafe, the magical realism, the beautiful atmosphere of rainy days and cafes just sound like a place you certainly wouldn’t mind escaping to, which is why it is so easy to pick up this book.

And we stay for the stories. The cafe called Funiculi Funicula, with its scarce options for seating and couple of regular visitors sits quietly unbothered by its fame as the time-travelling cafe. As character Fumiko wondered as well — If time travel is actually possible, why isn’t this place crawling with people eager to go back in time? Well, it turns out it isn’t as simple as clicking your fingers.

The posibility to go travel in time comes with a set of rules, which for most people sound impossible and undesirable to fulfill. You must stay inside the cafe, only sit in one specific place, only meet with people who have previously been to the cafe, and most importantly — return before the coffee has gone cold.

Despite all of these rules, however, the characters of this book do take the risks and go back, even though it is known that time-travel will not change the present. Taking a risk but facing reality is a beautiful idea set by Kawaguchi and I think the characters really do come to important realisations at the end of their travels.

Main character Fumiko decides to go back to her coffee date with her ex-boyfriend who left her for his job in America. Her regrets of not telling him how she feels exactlly drive her to do so. There is also nurse Kohtake whose husband can’ t recognise her anymore. There is a letter which she is eager to read and do so has to go back in time before his sickness has taken its toll on him. The third story is of Hirai who wants to speak with her sister one last time, and the last one is Kei who wants to speak to the daughter she never got to know.

The stories promise beautiful conclusions and in a way they are there. However, the major problem for me throughout this book was Kawaguchi’s ability to write women. Almost from the very beginning we have Fumiko’s looks described as better than ordinary. […] Despite her conservative clothes, her excepetional figure was easy to discern. […] Yes, she was a woman who combined intelligence and beauty. But whether she realized this was a different matter. This, as well as her ability to speak in 7 foreign languages, just screams of the ‘not-like-other-girls’ trope. I do belive that by 2020 we should have left that behind. The description of Hirai’s free-spirited nature which is in a way tamed so she could go back to her family and settle down, is also something which made me feel uneasy with these characters. So, for this the conclusions which every character came to in the end, did not feel entirely satisfactory to me. I don’t know what else I wanted to see but I was not satisfied.

Overall, I thought the language style of the book was beautiful as well as the premise. ‘Before the Coffee Gets Cold’ was originally intended as a stage play and I do honestly believe that I would have preferred to see it in that form, rather than a novel. There is a movie based on the book, apparently described as ‘weak brew’ by newspaper’s critics, but perhaps I’ll give it a try. I would read another Kawaguchi novel but maybe if only the main characters are male.

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Masters student with a passion for all things literature, film, and mental health.

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