“The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger

Title: The Time Traveler’s Wife
Author: Audrey Niffenegger
ISBN: 9780156029438
Pages: 560
Release date: September 2003
Publisher: Harcourt
Genre: Romance, science fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Summary

Long ago, men went to sea, and women waited for them, standing on the edge of the water, scanning the horizon for the tiny ship. Now I wait for Henry. He vanishes unwillingly, without warning. I wait for him. Each moment that I wait feels like a year, an eternity. Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting. Why has he gone where I cannot follow?

At the age of five, Henry DeTamble discovers that he can involuntarily travel through time; this rare genetic disorder comes to be known as Chrono-Displacement. The details of his trips—when he leaves, where he goes, or how long he will be gone—are all beyond his control. However, his destinations are often related to his own history, and emotions such as stress often trigger a trip.

In an attempt to stay stress-free and focused, Henry becomes an avid jogger. His speed and endurance is an important factor is his survival, as well; since he appears completely naked and often disoriented, Henry learns to survive despite any number of situations in which he may find himself. He becomes adept at picking locks and pockets and at defending himself.

Clare Abshire and Henry first “meet” at the Newberry Library in Chicago, where Henry is a librarian. Clare immediately recognizes Henry—an older version of Henry has time-traveled to her since she was six—but he had not visited her yet at that point in his chronology. The two embark on an adult relationship, and it is then that Henry begins traveling to Clare’s childhood home in South Haven, Michigan.

Sound confusing? It is!

Clare has been in love with Henry for years, but to him she is a stranger. Early on in their relationship, he comments, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were coming or I’d have cleaned up a little more. My life, I mean, not just the apartment.” Even after they become more intimate, Henry struggles with creating as normal a life as possible given his condition. He reflects, during one of the trips where he does not see her: “I hate to be where she is not, when she is not. And yet, I am always going.”

Clare is an art student, later becoming a professional artist who specializes in paper sculptures. She plunges into her craft to escape the loneliness and fear caused by his frequent absences and the ever-present danger inherent in his travels. At one point she promises him, “I won’t ever leave you, even though you’re always leaving me.”

The barriers to their happiness make their joy, when they are together, all the more sweet. But as Henry’s travels become more and more dangerous and Clare’s worries intensify, their love is put to the test.

Analysis

This book gorgeously illustrates love, loneliness, and loss. The story avoids being too romance-y by the sci-fi elements of Henry’s condition and experiences, but it also avoids being too science fiction-y by framing his story through Clare’s perspective as the wife of the time traveler.

Niffenegger’s approach to time travel is unique. She uses it to explore the miscommunication and sense of distance that can occur in any relationship, while also discussing the larger issue of what it would be like to live life completely out of order.

The book raises questions of fate and free will, which Clare questions herself:

I wonder sometimes if this readiness, this expectation, prevents the miracle from happening. But I have no choice. He is coming, and I am here.

Far from feeling forced and premeditated, however, their love feels timeless and inevitable.

The depth of the love between the two is astounding. I could see why some people thought the book was too sentimental. Their love story is too good, too perfect, too all-consuming for real life. But reading it a strange sort of science fiction, I was able to suspend my disbelief and wasn’t distracted by their almost magical bond.

The most difficult part for me to believe was the way the two make money; Henry memorizes lottery numbers and then comes back to strike it rich. They are then able to afford a beautiful house, and Clare doesn’t have to work. But this was less a problem with plot—it does make some sense—and more just my own jealousy of Clare’s opportunity to make art all day long—especially paper arts!

The jumping-around made the timeline confusing; you’re constantly wondering if, at a later point, more will be revealed by traveling backward or forward. This was probably purposeful on Niffenegger’s part, but having a rather disorganized narrative made it difficult, at times, to follow the story, and it took me a while to figure out the exact nature of Henry’s disease and exactly when the two met.

The world that Henry and Clare create together drew me in. I felt a deep sense of empathy with Clare when she struggles with the emotion and pain of loss:

I’m living under water. Everything seems slow and far away. I know there’s a world up there, a sunlit quick world where time runs like dry sand through an hourglass, but down here, where I am, air and sound and time and feeling are thick and dense.

The intensity of their feelings keep them close together even when they are forced apart. The book is a testament to the timelessness of perfect love, even if that kind of love can never actually exist in this world. Henry writes to Clare near the end of the story, “I love you, always. Time is nothing.”

I love. I have loved. I will love.

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