Time Traveler’s Wife

The Time Traveler’s Wife

by Audrey Niffenegger

I have to confess that I avoided this book when it was first released. I had the idea that it would be a Lifetime Movie of the Week sort of  fairy tale about impossibly perfect people, magical realism at it’s most whimsical and twee. My mistake. It’s true that this story has a magical element —, but the people are hardly perfect and if love is going to conquer all, it’s going to be an uphill battle.

The book is broken into fairly short chapters, when Henry — the time traveling librarian of the title — might be 29, and Clare his wife, or future wife — might be 16. Or he might be 44 and she might be 6. Or he might be both 16 and 33 and she 28. Henry has no control over his trips through time, he never knows where he’s going or when he’ll be back, looping back and forth through his own life, meeting himself again and again,  even occasionally going forward, and meeting Clare at least twice as if for the first time. I did find Clare’s lack of choice in the whole matter a tiny bit off-putting, even a little creepy. She meets Henry for the first time as a child, and never wavers from her path. She’s either passive or the most strong willed of women. She is or will be his wife and spends most of her time waiting for him to come back. That’s the only thing either of them are really sure of — he’ll eventually return, and she will be there.

Henry makes frequent trips to early 1970s New York City, and goes to punk clubs with the nostalgia of someone listening to an old record album. After all, he’s been there already. Clare is an artist; she stays home in her studio, like Penelope at her loom. And she waits for Henry.

Clare really deserves some sort of award for most understanding girlfriend ever. Not only does Henry pop in and out of time, but there’s no guarantee he’ll even make it down the aisle at their wedding. When they finally do get married, Clare decides she wants children, and their struggle to conceive is epic; the middle section of the book is pretty grueling. Then Henry makes a middle of the night phone call to himself from a freezing parking garage, and things just get worse after that.

There’s some attempt to bring science into the picture. It’s decided that Henry has a chromosomal disorder — they start calling him a Chrono-Displaced Person — and breed a race of time traveling mice. I don’t think the mice get to go dancing, though. We are left by the end of the book with the idea that Henry’s gift, or talent, or curse, is going to be a little more common in the future.

This is Niffenegger’s first novel, and while the premise might be magical, her writing is sort of anti-cute, and I mean that as the highest sort of compliment. But it’s also a deeply romantic book, as even though life is difficult for these two, their love makes the unusual problems they face worthwhile. It makes you take another look at your own life and put problems into perspective. Does your boyfriend suddenly appear naked in the middle of a field after being gone for two years? Okay, maybe that’s a bad example. I wonder if I could be as patient as Clare, who spends her whole life waiting. Is Henry worth it? Clare seems quite certain. And I wonder if I was in Henry’s unusual position, if I would think it was fair to insert yourself in the life of another, no matter how much you love them, knowing it could end at any second. And as soon as I posed those questions, I realize that they are no different than the questions we have to ask ourselves every day, as soon as we let another person into our lives. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger. I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation on Take Five, on XM 155.

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