Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

I confess, I had absolutely no idea what I was about to read when I was given a copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife. I had heard the title, of course, as it was a popular book club book for a while there, and I think Oprah may have endorsed it at some point. But as I am not a member of a book club and never watched Oprah (except when she gave stuff away, because I like to live vicariously), I didn’t know anything about it.

I was kind of expecting the title to be a metaphor for something. I wasn’t exactly sure what.

But no. This book is about a time-traveler. And his wife.

The book opens on the day when Henry DeTamble, a 28-year-old ponytailed librarian, first meets Clare Abshire, a bubbly and beautiful girl of 20. Let me be clear: it’s the day Henry first meets Clare. It’s not the first day Clare meets Henry, because Clare has known Henry since she was 6.

Confused yet?

Henry DeTamble, through no fault or effort of his own, is a time traveler. Sometimes when he is under stress, or looks at a blinking light, or is excited, or for no reason whatsoever, he finds himself involuntarily traveling through time. He arrives at an unknown time and place, stark naked, not knowing how long he will be there or any way to get back.

Henry knows all of this, since he has been time traveling since he was 5 years old. What is news to him is that an older version of himself will travel back in time, many times, to visit Clare as a child and teenager. Clare has grown up with Henry as her best friend, her confidante, her protector, knowing that she will someday marry him.

Now, before you start thinking “Ew, so this middle-aged guy travels back in time to a little kid and falls in love with her? Gross,” let me assure you that’s not how it happens. (No Twilight comparisons here). For Henry, he meets Clare as an adult, falls in love with her, marries her, and then finds himself constantly pulled unwittingly to her childhood, where he puts forth every effort to be entirely proper and appropriate with her younger self.

The only reason that Clare knows they will get married is because she’s a really wily and persistent teenager, and eventually manages to weasel the information out of him.

The book mostly follows Henry linearly through his nonlinear life. It details his courtship and marriage to Clare, and the trials and joys they face in their relationship. The only catch is that throughout the course of their relationship, we also accompany Henry as he visits the past and future, crossing paths with younger and older versions of himself, Clare, and their family and friends. It also, as the title suggests, shows us Clare’s struggle as she tries to have a normal life with a decidedly abnormal man.

As with most stories involving time travel, this one operates according to its own set of rules. My only rule when dealing with time travel stories is that I need the rules of the story to make sense and be consistent. Ms. Niffenegger (side note: I love the author’s name) does an excellent job making sure her characters and narrative adhere to the rules of their world.

The first-person narrative alternates between Henry and Clare’s voices. It is very easy to follow, since each time the narrator changes, the paragraph is headed with the character’s name, age, and the date.

I really enjoyed this story. When you boil it down to its bones, it’s simply a story of two people trying to make their relationship work, in spite of the world not always working in their favor. I would probably like it if that was all there was to it; however, the fact that the main thing working against them is the sci-fi element of involuntary time travel adds a freshness and uniqueness to the story that I loved.

I loved the characters of Henry and Clare. They both have their strengths and flaws. Ms. Niffenegger gives them each a distinct voice and personality, so I felt like I really knew them. I could understand how they fell in love, how they complemented each other, how they frustrated each other. Their relationship seemed real and substantive to me, and I found myself fully invested in these characters.

Also, while it’s easy to assume a book about time travel would fall solidly into the genre of science fiction, it’s not that simple. Henry’s time traveling (which is explained in the book as a genetic anomaly) is the only fantastical element of the story. It takes place over the last few decades. There have been no great leaps in science, evolution, medicine, space travel — basically, this is the world we are all familiar with. So although I love a good sci-fi story and therefore may not be the best person to judge this, I think this book would appeal even to those who have never read or enjoyed a sci-fi book in their lives.

The Time-Traveler’s Wife is in turns sweet, melancholy, exciting, and heartbreaking. It is a lovely story about normal people in both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. I loved journeying through the struggles and triumphs of Clare and Henry, and I missed them when the story was over.

Grade: A-

Content guide: Contains sex, profanity, occasional drug use and violence.

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