I can remember exactly when I heard about The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 mega-hit: it was summer 2004, in one of the dorms at BC. I was there for a summer course on the philosophy of Tolkien (see: nerd credentials, my), and my roommate told me it was her favorite book.
I don’t think I can tell you the favorite books of any of my other roommates, sadly, but this particular roommate went on to become one of my very best friends, so her recommendation has stuck with me for the last nine years and five months. Of course, now she’s gone and moved to Colorado, and she works nights, so I can’t call her up on any old afternoon to chat about the book.
Here’s the premise, for those of you who missed the big hullabaloo ten years ago: Clare and Henry are in love, but Henry suffers from a rare genetic disorder that causes him to time travel, involuntarily and without warning. He travels to the future and to the past, always landing naked (like the Terminator) and afraid, and not sure how long he’ll be gone from his present time. As you might suspect, Henry and Clare face some pretty weird challenges as they navigate their relationship.
What I liked best about the novel is its mix of genres: sci-fi, romance, domestic drama. Ms. Niffenegger’s writing is lively (though occasionally veering into cliche) and she has a knack for choosing quotations (Derek Walcott and A.S. Byatt both make appearances) that enhance the story. Thanks to her background in art, the scenes of Clare in her studio are some of the best in the book; I found myself wanting to learn more about contemporary paper-making and paper art.
The structure of the novel makes for a compulsive reading experience (also, it turns out that something Very Bad happens on my exact birthdate, so that was sort of weird and intriguing at the same time). It loosely follows Clare’s timeline, with tangents forward and backward as necessary. At one point, time is compared to a Möbius strip, an apt analogy; the future Henry is always part of Clare’s past, for example, and the present Henry and Clare cannot escape either the past or the future. Henry often feels helpless, not only because he cannot control his time traveling, but also because he cannot alter events. He might know about a terrible accident in the future, but he has no power, in his past, to change it. (On the other hand, he’s pretty handy with the stock market.)
Despite the genre-bending premise, The Time Traveler’s Wife is primarily a love story; the science part of the sci-fi doesn’t really hold water. Sure, genetics could explain the physical symptoms associated with Henry’s time displacement, but the actual time traveling as a genetic quirk? I’m not buying. (And that comes from a lady who can quote you Next Gen, chapter and verse.)
Ok, so here are the topics I want to talk to somebody (you?) about:
Henry’s the lit-nerd’s perfect guy, right? He’s a librarian, he speaks multiple languages, he’s tall dark and mysterious, he’s wicked sexy, he’s a bad-boy-turned-good-guy . . . I mean, really. Is he too perfect?
Wait, let me answer my first question with another question: Is Henry too damn paternalistic? All this withholding information from Clare (for her own good, of course) seems awfully condescending, and the implication that it’s ok because Clare has her own secrets doesn’t sit too well with me.
Is giving Clare a rich family lazy? My mother pointed out to me years ago that it’s easier for writers when characters are rich; you don’t have to write in what it’s like to have to forgo dinner out to pay the phone bill, or write about shopping clearance sales instead of waltzing into a boutique, or explain why someone is able to buy a house or fly to Orlando. She was commenting on movies (see: Nancy Meyers’s post-1990 oeuvre), but the point holds for novels, too, I think. Unless wealth and its effects are important to the plot or theme of the novel, making characters rich just seems lazy. Sure, Clare’s family’s property is so big that nobody notices her childhood chats with future-Henry, but why not put her on a ranch, or a farm, or a city apartment with parents who work long hours (or a single parent, for that matter)?
On a related note: What’s up with many of the non-white characters being household help? I grant that Kimy is a three-dimensional character, but she still deserves more prominent placement. Could have done without Celia’s characterization as a predatory lesbian, too. I think Ms. Niffenegger consciously tries to include non-white characters, but too often the attempt reads as tokenism.
And here’s a question with some spoiler material, so stop reading now if you want to be kept in the dark. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come back.
Why don’t Clare and Henry just adopt? Six miscarriages, at least one involving a massive transfusion? Adoption seems to be the sensible solution here. I HATE with a fiery passion Clare’s rationale for not adopting:
Clare says, “But that would be fake. It would be pretending.” She sits up, faces me, and I do the same.
“It would be a real baby, and it would be ours. What’s pretend about that?”
“I’m sick of pretending. We pretend all the time. I want to really do this.”
“We don’t pretend all the time. What are you talking about?”
“We pretend to be normal people, having normal lives! [. . . ]” (349-350)
It would be one thing if Clare apologized for this outburst (and for not really answering Henry’s question) and explained herself. Instead, her implication that adoption is somehow “pretend” is left hanging (Henry gets angry, leaves the house, and time travels), and in a feat of magical realism, a past Henry pops up and impregnates her. Pregnancy number seven is lucky, and she delivers a healthy baby, which reads to me as if the novel endorses Clare’s f’ed up analysis of the ontological status of adoption.
Safe to return, dear readers!
Despite these shortcomings, I found the novel fascinating, and, as you can tell, it gave me lots to think about. Have you read it? What did you think? And how was the movie?