Review of The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Time Traveler's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
Contrary to what the title of this book implies to any sensible reader, this book is not about River Song. Disappointing, I know.
I ended up liking this book much more than I expected. To be perfectly honest, I did not want to like The Time Traveler’s Wife. It’s a popular book, a “pop lit” book that has appropriated something so dear to science fiction and turned it into a gimmick for a romance. I had resolved to read it so I would know what others are talking about, and be armed with reasons why I dislike it. But that didn’t happen.
Instead, I found myself entranced by the way Audrey Niffenegger has ruthlessly pursued this idea of two lovers literally out of sync with each other. She is quick to establish consistent rules about Henry’s time travelling, and there is a singular pleasure to watching the timeline wrap around itself as we see an event Clare witnessed as a young girl from the eyes of the much older, temporally-displaced Henry. In short, Niffenegger takes what could have been a gimmick and, through an obvious effort and maybe even some talent, turns it into a great story.
That’s not to say the time travel in this story is perfect. After all, the reason that Henry travels through time unwillingly is kind of silly—it’s genetic. As if there are certain alleles that somehow cause our bodies to opt out of the space-time continuum. On the surface it’s an intriguing premise, and Niffenegger at least tries to make it sound scientific. Nothing but Henry’s body travels with him, so he always arrives nude—as he remarks, it’s a good thing he doesn’t wear glasses. But how does this phenomenon know what is part of Henry’s body? If it’s anything with the time-travelling DNA, then that would leave behind his hair, not to mention all those lovely bacteria on and inside our bodies that keep us alive and healthy. Any way you slice it, Niffenegger’s explanations for Henry’s condition are implausible—but her attempts at plausibility are sincere enough that I’ll be generous and call this science fiction, not fantasy. It’s such a fine line!
Once we grant Henry his miracle exception to hop through time, we can finely immerse ourselves in the story—or stories. We get to see both Henry and Clare’s perspectives of events, sometimes of the same events; sometimes we even see the perspective from two different Henrys when they meet up. This is particularly fascinating during the first part of the novel, when Henry recounts the first time he can remember time-travelling, and all the times his older self taught him survival tactics: pickpocketing, fighting, etc. (Randomly materializing in the nude is a dangerous hobby.) Niffenegger comes up with all of these interesting consequences of Henry’s singular ability, both for Henry and for the woman he is destined to love.
Clare meets Henry when she is young (six, I think), but he is already in his forties. Henry won’t meet the contemporary Clare until he is 28 and she is 21, so for the first two decades of her life, Clare must content herself with Henry’s sporadic visits to a meadow near her parents’ luxurious home. At the very beginning of the story, Henry’s visits to Clare are a little creepy: naked middle-aged man shows up and begins spending quality time with a young girl. Niffenegger lampshades this concern during their first visit, but there is still something problematic about the way Clare essentially imprints upon Henry. It makes one wonder if either of them had any choice in the matter.
If there is one deeper theme I’d take away from The Time Traveler’s Wife, it has to be the meditation upon free will: act like you have it, even if you (probably) don’t. Henry talks about how he is unable to change the past, how even when he tries, he feels constrained somehow. (I find the description and explanation rather unsatisfying, but again, credit to Niffenegger for establishing ground rules.) This means that if he sees his older self do something, he is bound to repeat that action when he becomes that person, no matter how hard he tries. If that is the case, it seems to me like Henry’s entire life—and by extension, everyone’s lives—are predestined. Niffenegger doesn’t explore this as explicitly as I would like, but it is fairly well-developed through the course of the plot itself.
Henry and Clare’s relationship is in many ways like that of the Doctor and River Song. The older time traveller appears to a young girl and influences her in a big way; she falls in love with him. They continue to meet; he gets younger, and she gets older. They have adventures together out of order. Both The Time Traveler’s Wife and Doctor Who explore how confusing and interesting such a relationship would be, and neither shies away from the fact that it’s very messed up. Henry’s presence during Clare’s formative years essentially means she has little choice but to fall in love with him. Later, she finds the contemporary version of him, showing him her little diary with all the dates of his visits, and tells him they are destined to be together. Sometimes I lament our linear existence, but I have to say, I can see the benefits to having everyone experience events in the same order.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is not quite the sappy romance I feared it would be. Henry and Clare’s relationship is, most of the time, genuinely touching. I suppose one could complain about the way Clare eternally pines for Henry, but I think Niffenegger makes it clear that, however the relationship came about in the first place, both of them love each other unconditionally. Still, if it weren’t for the time travelling, the story would be fairly ho-hum and conventional. It’s the unchronological nature of events that rescues this book—that, and occasionally brilliant moments of writing from Niffenegger. I particularly loved the mood she captures when Henry is meeting Clare’s family for the first time, Christmas 1991. The squabbling and bickering feels very real, even if the supporting characters (the oddly stereotypically-dictioned servants) do not.
There is only one major thorn in this otherwise pleasant surprise: the ending. Specifically, the last two acts of the book. By this time the novelty of Henry’s time-travelling has worn off, and we are fast approaching the point where something has to give. Nevertheless, I was kind of expecting … I don’t know. Something more than what we get. Something deeper, more meaningful. I’m not going to spoil it, but essentially my problem is that there are no surprises in store for us: it does happen exactly the way Henry tells us it will happen. I wasn’t hoping for a last-minute reprieve, but I put the book down without any sense of being changed for it. And that, to me, is unsatisfying.
So I don’t quite think The Time Traveler’s Wife deserves all its accolades, but maybe that’s just me. It’s a good book, one that I enjoyed, and one that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to certain people. What could easily have been a poorly-executed gimmick is actually the core of the book. Yet for all the big issues raised by time travel—like free will—this book remains a stubborn biography of two people rather than slipping loose to become something bigger. I was party to the experience of The Time Traveler’s Wife but not really part of the experience.