No, wait, I’m doing this in the wrong order.
Bonnie Rozanski’s The Mindtraveler tells the story of aging physics professor Margaret Braverman, disgraced 25 years ago when her secret experiments with time-travel led to an embarrassing electrocution. At sixty, she lectures in physics, lives alone, and half-heartedly attends faculty meetings, while indulging in the odd daydream about what might have happened if her great experiment had succeeded.
Margaret is pretty blunt about losing her love, about years spent alone, and her academic failures, at first, like the acceptance of age or the clear-eyed rationality of a career researcher. But it only takes an offhand comment from her grad student assistant to encourage her to give that great experiment one more go.
Back in her 35-year-old body, Margaret is re-experiencing her life and seeing the small events that set her on her current path. Margaret’s curiosity is always her strongest motivator, and she remains a blunt and not terribly emotional narrator. It’s hard not to sympathize with her here, re-experiencing a love affair that has ended quite badly in her own past, re-experiencing an embarrassing professional failure, and seeing her friends in the physics department back when they were young, healthy and hopeful. But if she can make a tiny change in the past, maybe she won’t end up sidelined and alone.
Blending wild time-travel with daily details of academic life gave this story the feel of magical realism. Margaret accepts the physics behind her great experiment, as well as the amazing opportunity she has with time travel, which makes it easy for reader to accept both.
The romance between Margaret and Frank is layered and believable. In one scene, 60-year-old Margaret hears and understands what 35-year-old Margaret is told by Frank, and didn’t fully understand at the time. But the story isn’t a romance — Margaret’s friendships with her colleagues in the physics department are very important, and she puts asides her own worries to try to help these bright, young men at 35 to avoid the problems she’s seen them encounter at 60. In one case, returning to 35 with the wisdom of 60 gives her new insights into her friend’s character, and not for the better.
She’s also a rare female heroine with deep professional ambitions, motivated by endless curiosity and a desire for glory. Academic backstabbing and departmental infighting are frighteningly realistic, although the sleazy department chair is just a little too shameless and predatory.
With multiple timestreams, crossing and affecting each other, and different versions of Margaret’s self, The Mindtraveler has so many opportunities to devolve into confusion or technobabble. Instead, Margaret’s no-nonsense narration keeps the story clear. Almost too clear for those of us rooting for happy ending, because she’s shown us her weakness for impulsive and selfish decisions many times, leading to an ending that is both heartbreaking and strangely inevitable.