Si Morely is a late twentieth-century artist who spends his days in the comfortable but non-creative pursuit of drawing boring illustrations, and his nights in an equally comfortable but not-so-great relationship with an interesting (but definitely not hot) antiques dealer. It's the type of relationship where you might get married someday, but then again, you might not. Si's girlfriend, however, is a lady with a secret: a burned, blue envelope that appears to warn of the the end of the world by fire.
The government interrupts Si's comfortable but mundane life when they make a proposal. The only problem is, Si has to agree before he can learn any of the details. As nothing particularly spectacular is happening in Si's life right now, he agrees and learns the government has been experimenting with time travel. They are now searching for the perfect people to send back in time, i.e., people who love history, who can recreate the past in their imaginations.
As it turns out, Si has a very good imagination and is the first to make the trip. He crosses time's threshold and enters New York in 1882, a place where he will encounter an old mystery and a future love.
Finney's Old New York is both magical and romanticized, a little like Mark Helprin's in Winter's Tale. Horses trot down the city streets, skyscrapers are only a dream and snow transforms the city into a winter wonderland. The streets are cobblestone, the men are gentlemen and people live in boarding houses whose windows reflect the light from the gas lamps lining the streets. It's an idealized version of New York, to be sure, and Finney doesn't tell us about the child labor, the rampant racism, the myriad of problems that were portrayed in Caleb Carr's The Alienist, for example. That's okay, because Time and Again is so good, and such wonderful entertainment, that we easily forgive Finney his historical inaccuracies.
While visiting the past, Si investigates his girlfriend's family secret, the secret of the blue envelope. Although a little contrived, this is a mystery with many twists and turns, at times sinister, at times amusing, but always engrossing.
Finney wisely presents no new earth-shaking ideas here and only briefly touches on themes such as the paradox and angst associated with fooling around with the course of history. Si is a man who interacts with the past in much the same way you or I probably would, and, ultimately, this is what makes Time and Again so very believable and so very good.
Gratefully, Finney eschews gimmicks and high-tech solutions to the problem of time travel and gracefully relies on plain old-fashioned will instead. That is part of why Si is able to accomplish it so easily. For him, history is more than names and dates in a book, it's something that's happening right now, something that can be recreated, if only one can get into the right frame of mind.
Time travel is a wonderful and entertaining genre if only it's handled correctly and handling it correctly is something Finney never fails to do. In Time and Again Finney gives us the complexity of a murder mystery wrapped in a "Russian" enigma. It's a wonderful book with wonderful characters that never fails to entertain.