The saddest book I ever read

Grace Schutte

More stories from Grace Schutte

May 10, 2023

What started out as a random book thrift in Vancouver, Canada turned into one of my favorite reads of the year.

Something to know about me is, I like a good cry. 

Without fail, the end of a movie gets me teary-eyed; the final notes of a song make my nose twinge; the last pages of a good book bring on the tears. 

When it comes to art — be it film, a museum or a well-crafted ad — you can expect me to cry at one point or another. I am a pisces, after all, it’s in my nature. 

I say this to contextualize the upcoming review of the saddest book I have ever read. 

I will not go so far as to say it is the saddest book ever (I haven’t read “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara, so I really can’t say), but this title should at least be in the running. 

Before the Coffee Gets Cold” is a relatively short book written by Japanese author Toshikazu Kawaguchi and was later translated from Japanese into English by Geoffrey Trousselot. 

The premise is simple: In Tokyo, there is an ancient cafe in which patrons can time travel.

But there’s more to it than that. There are many rules and conditions surrounding how a person can go about this mystical voyage.

To time travel, you must sit at the right table, in the right chair and tell the barista, Kazu, when you want to go in time and who it is you want to meet. 

While you’re there, you cannot move from the seat and can only see people who have previously visited the cafe.

There is also a time limit — you can only stay as long as the magically brewed coffee is warm. Should you stay any longer, you will turn into a ghost-like creature and haunt the cafe, always looking to escape the present. 

Oh, and of course, nothing you say or do will change the present. 

Some of you are probably wondering what the point of time travel is if it won’t change anything. I felt the same, but was dying to know what drove the characters to travel anyway, despite their futile attempts to change the course of their lives. 

The book is split into four chapters: “The Lovers,” “Husband and Wife,” “The Sisters” and “Mother and Child.” Each details a trip taken to either the past or the future and reveals what has drawn the characters to voyage at all. 

The reasons vary — an unresolved breakup, a failing mind, a premature death and a first meeting, but they all have some things in common: regret and heartache, but also love and compassion. 

“Before the Coffee Gets Cold” is character-driven, chock-full of empathetic and caring characters who have loved and lost, and ones who will lose again. 

In so few words, Kawaguchi creates compelling characters and entire worlds created between them, my favorite being the love shared between an illiterate farmer and a young college student — the love letters they shared then and now, even after everything. 

(You’ll have to read the book to figure out what I mean.) 

After reading, I looked like an extra on the set of “Les Miserables” due to 272 pages of straight-up emotional warfare. With lines like this one from the 269th page, how could I not? 

“I am really glad for the life you gave me.”

Did I openly weep afterward, with snot dribbling from my nose and mascara streaking all over my face? Did I buy the second book, “Tales From the Cafe” anyway? Yes and yes. 

If you’re a fan of books that really make you feel something, this is the one for you. 

Schutte can be reached at [email protected].