The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger (2003) E

Date read: 8.27.09
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Henry DeTamble travels, involuntarily, in time; Clare Abshire is the woman who has loved him since she was 6 years old, and he, displaced in time – but in his own timeline already married to her – introduces himself to her in a meadow. The Time Traveler’s Wife charts the the convoluted course of their love, and all the hazards, vagaries, joy, and anguish that Henry’s strange condition brings into their lives.

Kakaner has been begging me to read this for years. This August I finally gave her the satisfaction of receiving a barrage of emails from me exclaiming over the book as I plowed through it in a handful of days. I was absolutely sucked in, and despite her warning that she’d found the first 100 pages of the book slow going, the first half-ish of the book was actually my favorite. I loved the slow back-and-forth as Clare works her way through life to her first meeting with in-time Henry – I found the scenes of her childhood and young adulthood (and the interspersed glimpses of Henry’s childhood and his first, innocently bedazzled experiences of time travel) beautiful and singularly lush, and I loved feeling so connected with Clare as a character, so immersed in her experience of growing up, and feeling as intensely as she does the anxiety and excitement of each impending encounter with Henry. (Sucker for young love, right here.)

Overall, it’s amazing how much the construction of the book does for the narrative, and the grace and ableness with which Niffenegger handles the construction is incredible. While reading I almost felt compelled to sketch timelines of Henry and Clare’s romance, although Niffenegger nearly does it for the reader, with her careful notation of dates and Henry and Clare’s age in each scene. I love how Henry’s timeline wanders, hems in sections of their lives, forms little loops and strange zig-zags, so that their lives are haunted by foreshadowing and premonition. And Niffenegger’s prose is another major component of the book’s allure. Her voice is pleasurably, sort of comfortably poetic – lots of beautiful language, all apt, if not necessarily surprising. Simple, elegant, supple. And her characterizations of Henry and Clare are terrific – it’s hard not to fall in love with them as people and as a couple, and, again, to feel wholly invested in their experiences, whether horrific or euphoric.

However, by the last…100, maybe? 80? pages of the book, I actually felt so drained by the constant melodrama of the book’s latter half that my reactions to the events felt more mechanical than emotional, though normally I’m all for well-done melodrama. In retrospect, I think the middle-endish segment of the book was simply dragged out too much. I was trying to think of a short way to put this, and hit upon “pre-climactic sag” as a term for it: that wearying, and in this case deadening suspension that extremely emotional books can induce if the final catharsis just doesn’t seem to come soon enough. I’ve also felt it with, for example, The Icarus Girl (review) and Perdido Street Station, despite also loving those books as wholes.

Additionally, I was very sad and upset that Clare, in the end, continues to define herself solely by her relationship with Henry (i.e. “I wait for Henry,” her defining quote). While this was definitely a deliberate choice of characterization on Niffenegger’s part (she even commented in an interview that had she been in Clare’s place, she would have stopped waiting for Henry a long time ago), not her idea of What Women Should Do In Relationships or something similarly questionable, I found that it didn’t fit with my view of Clare, whom I saw, yes, as deeply faithful, but also bright and independent. Combined with the above, the final result was that the ending fizzled for me, and I closed the book feeling only distantly wistful, and slightly disgruntled. I imagine this might mellow with a re-read, however.

Regardless, this is definitely a book that I’d recommend to wide audiences. It’s accessibly literary, extremely moving, and its central concept is almost endlessly interpretable and applicable to a variety of circumstances, whether a relationship in jeopardy or questions of free will and predestination. Interestingly to note, most people seem to interpret The Time Traveler’s Wife as standing for the existence of destiny, but Niffenegger states that her intention was the opposite -to portray the universe as being ruled by chance and meaninglessness.

Fun fact: The French title of the novel is Le Temps N’est Rien – “Time is Nothing.” (I was in French Québec when the movie came out, so I had occasion to remark the posters and marquees and such.) I guess it sounds snappier than “L’Épouse du Voyageur du Temps,” which would be the direct translation. I love seeing creative translation decisions and trying to work out the thought process behind them – I once saw a list of translations of Harry Potter character names across at least 5 languages that was pretty fascinating. Anyway.

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Audrey Niffenegger

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  1. kanachidori’s avatar

    It’ one of my fave books, I did find it hard to get into the story at first, first few chapters, but once you are in, you are totally sucked into it.
    The movie version wasn’t as good, of course, that’s given. The book is awesome, I think a plot is good, when the characters are people you come to love along the way, Henry is my fave. I guess I am a bit biased here, since Claire slept with her best friend’s guy, but before Claire, Henry was like sleeping with many girls. LOL.
    The ending was sad, but everyone have to die eventually. I had enjoyed their love story.
    Henry and Claire.

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  2. Emera’s avatar

    kanachidori
    I think a plot is good, when the characters are people you come to love along the way
    That’s a lovely way to put it. It’s one of the many ways in which a book can succeed.

    since Claire slept with her best friend’s guy
    Yeah, it is problematic that Clare slept with him while he was in the relationship, but given that Clare has almost inhuman restraint in every other respect of her life (i.e. waiting for Henry), I didn’t fault her too much.

    I agree that Henry is terribly dashing, though – I think Niffenegger does a wonderful job of making him simultaneously very attractive, and troubling as a person. There’s a certain shared element of destructiveness in his and Clare’s personalities that makes the dynamic between them both compelling and unnerving.

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