Back to the Future may be a much-loved movie and a Broadway musical, but it’s also the time-traveling inspiration for Maurene Goo’s Throwback, a deliciously smart YA novel.
Samantha Kang is a Korean-American teenager who chafes against her mother’s desire to fit into all the places Sam couldn’t care less about. Throwback starts with a family country club interview that Sam nearly tanks with her questions, driving her mother, Priscilla, bananas. Sam finds refuge in visiting her grandmother, Halmoni, in Los Angeles’ K-Town, but the tension between Halmoni and Sam’s mom, which started during Priscilla’s senior year in high school, is hard to take.
One day, while Halmoni is struggling with health issues, Sam’s mom takes her to the mall to play hooky and buy a dress for Homecoming. Before they even get out of the car, Sam blows up, enough that her mom leaves her on the sidewalk to find her own ride. Enter driver Madge from super-quirky Throwback Rides, who drops off Sam at school, but wait – the lockers are a new color. The kids are entirely different. Her English teacher is… young? And the Priscilla who’s sitting next to her in homeroom is – you guessed it – Sam’s mom as a high school senior, running for Homecoming Queen and about to lose.
Calling Marty McFly! Samantha realizes that she has been slapped back in time for one reason: to help Priscilla win her campaign. If Sam succeeds in changing the past, she could potentially heal the rift between her mother and grandmother in the future, Sam’s present. But in the meantime, Sam has to live without Venmo, cell phones, or a speck of nuance in high school social life.
All of this may sound like a familiar premise, but in the hands of Maurene Goo the plot sparkles like a 90s prom dress. Besides the book being a rollicking ride, Sam’s thoughtful reactions show us how far teenagedom has evolved since 1995. As she stares at the competitive, annoying social circles of insular North Foothill High, “I thought of my easy access to the entire world beyond this city – all the randos I followed on social to learn about their weird snacks, pets, and ways to get hard-water stains off stainless steel. I guess these guys only had crappy magazines selling them a very specific version of teenagerhood.” With three decades separating their experiences, Sam and her teenage mom also consider what it means to be Korean-American, which helps Sam understand her mom’s adult self completely differently.
You’ll have to read Throwback to find out if Sam can ditch microfiche for the Internet. But suffice to say there’s an ending that satisfies, relationships that endure, and mother-daughter moments that made at least this reader tear up. The book’s dedication isn’t “For my mother, obviously,” for nothing.