The tension of “will they or won’t they” has done a lot of heavy lifting for stories through the ages, including many that wouldn’t have been nearly as intriguing otherwise.
In the case of Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, that question is a touchpoint throughout the years for its characters, but the answer is so much more complicated—and interesting—than who ends up professing love to whom. More importantly, it presses its characters, and the reader, to decide what kinds of love and relationships count most.
Sam and Sadie meet in the children’s ward of a Los Angeles hospital—Sam recovering from a devastating car crash that killed his mother and permanently disables him, and Sadie visiting her sister battling cancer—and immediately bond over video games. A little light deception and wounded feelings mean their friendship doesn’t have the chance to grow it would have had otherwise. This is rectified, though, when they reconnect as college students in Boston, far away from home and dealing with their own struggles. They both still love video games, but Sadie has decided to make a profession out of hers by studying video game design at MIT. Sam is enchanted by her work, and convinces her to spend the summer making a game with him.
The game, eventually called Ichigo, ends up taking much longer than the summer, but also becomes something far greater than a student project. Along with Sam’s roommate and the pair’s sort-of producer, Marx, Sadie and Sam launch Ichigo into the world, where it finds a willing audience. A sequel helps build their little gaming company even more, and soon they’re making big bets with real money on more game ideas. As the company flourishes, though, insecurities and jealousies threaten to derail both their success and friendship. When tragedy strikes, their relationship, both platonic and professional, is put to the test like never before.
There’s so much to love about Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, but I’ll try to be brief. Although Tomorrow is ostensibly about the relationship between two people whose lives happen to entwine more than most, so much of the story, and its conflicts, revolve around the creative process—including how its eventual audience understands or misunderstands it. Sam and Sadie are both phenomenally talented at what they do, and they do almost the same thing. But their backgrounds exacerbate the slight differences, and strengths, found in that “almost,” which is where most of the conflict comes from. Sam’s upbringing by his immigrant grandparents means he knows how difficult it is to break out of poverty, and will do anything he has to to stay out of it. Sadie’s identity as a woman in the video game industry in the 1990s and 2000s means she feels her hard work is constantly dismissed and her ideas claimed by or ascribed to men. These two things clash more frequently, and more dramatically, than you might think, but it never feels contrived. Rather, it feels honest, and earnest, and achingly human.
Miscommunication is baked into the DNA of will they and won’t theys, among other tropes. They’re present here, too, but Zevin wisely keeps them grounded into reality—none of these tiny misunderstandings that could have been easily cleared up by a single text but are nonetheless blown way out of proportion. Characters do make assumptions about the intents of others based on these miscommunications, and while one in particular seems to be a bit of an overreaction, it is rooted firmly in trauma. What’s more, when it is defused, the clarity doesn’t suddenly mend the relationship. Feelings are still hurt from a litany of slights, the kind that seem like hardly anything on their own but can accumulate into crushing blows.
While much of the attention in the throughline of Tomorrow is centered on Sadie and Sam (and I do adore them both), there’s a good amount of well-deserved love left over for Marx, whose subtle thoughtfulness (and generous wallet) facilitates so much of what happens from those early days of Ichigo to the height of the successful company. (It is his love for Shakespeare that gives Tomorrow its name.) He is the sum total of the trio’s emotional intelligence, and in his absence, Sam makes due by thinking about what Marx would say or do if he were there. More than that, Marx is a delight, and honest about who he is to his friends. At one low point, Sam tells Marx that he’s the NPC (non-player character, or a character controlled by the computer) while Sam and Sadie are the heroes of the story. That’s true, Marx readily agrees—and it’s a good thing, because without NPCs, the heroes would just run around an empty world with nothing to do and no one to talk to. He is not without flaws but sees beauty and brilliance in all that Sam and Sadie do, and so often acts as the intermediary between them.
The plot is interesting and the characters are fascinating, but all of it is cemented together by Zevin’s writing. The prose is strong, and the structure was perfectly suited for the story at hand. Now and then, an omniscient narrator pops in to explain or to foreshadow, and to great effect. Mostly little things, such as interviews Sam or Sadie would give years from their early beginnings, when those versions of themselves would be flush with success that they could not imagine at the time of the present action at that point in the story. This is no surprise; from the first line, before anything else, we know Sam reinvents himself in fame. Even when it forewarns of tragedy, the voice of it is so familiar that its warning seems gentle and expected.
But my favorite use of structure comes in the book’s fourth section, during which the company is working on a game that splits player point of view between the real world and a fantasy setting. Zevin splits each chapter into two, divided into Sam’s and Sadie’s points of view, respectively, as their actions and frustrations unknowingly mirror the other’s. The whole book reminded me of Austin Grossman’s You, for more than the twin themes of friendships changing over time and deep meaning poured into video game creation. In You, Grossman also plays with structure in a way that fits the themes of the plot. Yet You cannot conceive of the gut punch that Zevin delivers in another section that plays with structure. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so moved by such a brief portion of a book.
John Green blurbed Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and the overall vibe does feel like something you’d like if you cut your literary teeth on Looking for Alaska or An Abundance of Katherines. But it’s also feels like spending time with people you almost know, like you could form a parasocial relationship with Sadie and Sam—and Marx—just by opening the cover. After a book filled with narrative promises and forewarning, the end feels almost as though it comes too quickly. In reality, the characters have simply caught up to the present day, and there is no narrative voice to tell us what comes next for Sadie and Sam, good or bad. All there is left is to keep going and see what the future brings. Will they or won’t they? You’ll have to look elsewhere for your spoilers.