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Escape To New York: A Sentimental Trip Through 'Time'

Susan Jane Gilman is the author of <em>Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress</em> and <em>Kiss My Tiara</em>.  Her newest memoir is titled <em>Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven</em>.
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Susan Jane Gilman is the author of Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress and Kiss My Tiara. Her newest memoir is titled Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven.

Years ago, when I was leaving my beloved hometown of New York, my father tucked Jack Finney's novel Time and Again into my suitcase. I was heading to graduate school in the Midwest. There, I was supposed to study "high" literary fiction.

Instead, I spent my first week devouring Time and Again.

This cult pop thriller follows the story of Simon Morley, an artist recruited by the U.S. government for a top-secret time travel project. Using self-hypnosis and a famous New York landmark, Morley travels back in time from 1970 to 1882 as an observer, but as soon as he finds himself in 19th century Manhattan, he gets swept up in its magic.

Morley walks down a bucolic Fifth Avenue, the streets are full of horse-drawn carriages and mansions and of course, he becomes infatuated with a young lady from his boarding house before becoming ensnared in a mystery that threatens to cause "the destruction by fire of the entire world." Soon, he's besotted in and with 1882, and so was I.

Time and Again is a fabulous historical novel mixed with Sci-Fi romp, mystery thriller and of course, romance. It's wildly inventive. It's gripping. It's even based on Einstein's unified theories. So, as we say in "Noo Yawk," what's the problem? Why am I embarrassed to love this book?

It's a male bodice-ripper, a macho fantasy of saving a damsel in distress through time travel — a Harlequin Romance for geeks, and it's worst offense? Sentimentality.

New York City in 1882 had monumental problems. But while Morley acknowledges these, they're nothing, he claims, compared to the pollution, war and skyscrapers of 1970. The "good ol' days," in his eyes, really were the good old days. And maybe they were for guys like him. If you were a healthy, wealthy, white, Protestant male, 1882 really was a kinder, gentler place. As for the rest of us? Not so much, I think.

Yet Time and Again sends out a huge valentine to the past. It's nostalgic and there's something deliciously comforting and escapist in its promise of a New York Eden.

Ever since my father gave it to me I've taken pleasure in reading Finney's novel time and again, especially when I'm homesick or blue. But with my 21st century sensibilities, I feel guilty. Like somehow, this New Yorker should know better.

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Susan Jane Gilman, whose reviews and commentaries can be heard regularly on All Things Considered, is a journalist, fiction writer and bestselling author of three nonfiction books: Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a SmartMouth Goddess and, most recently, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, a memoir about a naive and disastrous trek Gilman made through Communist China in 1986.