The Time Traveler’s Wife

At Cambridge University, one of the academics who has set an exam paper has to be in the examination hall for the first ten minutes in case there’s a problem. I’ve never quite understood this practice, as exam papers are checked and rechecked to the nth degree and the candidate who puts a hand up in order to say, please could you explain to me what question five means, is going to get little joy out of the examiner. Still, there it is, we all put on our gowns and sit watching scared people for a brief while before flitting out into the summer sunlight, happy to have the privilege of freedom. One year, I noticed a strange anomaly; the candidates for the exam I’d set were split over two different rooms. How was I supposed to be present in each one? I scratched my head and decided all I could do was swap after five minutes. Rustling into the second room, five minutes into the exam, I spotted another colleague there performing similar duties, who greeted me with raised eyebrows. Wordlessly, I showed him the timetable that indicated the split. He gave me a big wink and whispered: ‘Bi-location is the proof of sainthood.’

Henry DeTamble, the eponymous time traveler of Audrey Niffenegger’s novel might have found a way round my dilemma. But then again he might not. Henry often finds himself whisked away from his present surroundings and dumped unceremoniously, naked and nauseous, in a different era of his life. He can’t control where he ends up, although, sometimes, the complexity of his travels means that he knows where he’s going to be. Quite often, he meets himself, and quite often, too, he bumps into people he knows, with uncertain and confusing results. But more often than not, he ends up alone and exquisitely vulnerable, in desperate need of food and clothing, at the mercy of the police and an ungentle society. In consequence, Henry’s a bit of a tough man; he can pack a punch and pick a lock and has no compunction about stealing as he has to find a way to survive. Very occasionally, fate relents, and he finds himself in a position to help himself or his loved ones out. But Niffenegger wants us to understand that this is not a story of an extraordinary skill, more the tale of a particular kind of modern martyrdom. Time travel is usually associated with power, influence, rescue and adventure, with the magic part of its magic realism enhanced to thrilling effect. Instead we have a narrative that calls it chrono-displacement, treats it like a chronic and debilitating illness and uses it to pose some uncomfortable existential questions.

Knowledge is a fundamental problem of humankind. Most novels treat the question: how can we tolerate our crippling ignorance of what will happen next? But this novel poses a different question: how can we manage to live with knowledge of what the future holds? At the heart of the novel is the love story between Henry and Clare, who meet when Clare is six and Henry is thirty-six and marry when Clare is twenty-two and Henry thirty. One of the great strengths of this novel is that the confusing nature of Henry’s time traveling is always beautifully explained and cleverly handled. The early stages of the novel chart Henry’s random appearances in Clare’s back garden as she grows up, aware from childhood that this is the man she will one day marry. As for Henry, he’s enjoying one of the rare treats of his condition, briefly taken out of a fraught married life with Clare and back to the delight of a long and unusual courtship. When they finally meet, Clare is more than prepared, whilst Henry,  returned to his linear present, has no idea who she is. Time travel means that Clare knows her life is bound up with Henry’s; there is no enigma as in most orthodox love stories, as to whether their love will last. Instead, the obstacles they face are rather different ones. Henry’s always on the point of disappearing, and Clare never knows when or in what state he will return, beaten up, injured or traumatized by a glimpse of what the future holds. Given that stress (naturally) is what triggers Henry’s time traveling, the ordinary-extraordinary events like marriage and childbirth hold more than the usual pitfalls for them. And worst of all, Henry’s been to the future and he knows how it all ends. It’s a combination of the tragic aspects of their love story, and the rare but spectacular compensations of his condition that motivate most of the plotline, whilst keeping the reader enthralled and often deeply moved by their plight.

I remember once reading that the soldier was one of the most romantic figures of literature because he was always on the point of leaving. The same device renders Henry a poignant figure, and gives Clare’s profound loving loyalty to him an air of authenticity. Fear of abandonment stalks all relationships, and Niffenegger adds a twist to this by making the hero unable to control his disappearances, or the circumstances in which he materializes. Perpetual abandonment, large and small, amusing and terrifying, structures the narrative and gives it a tightrope quality. I’m not generally fond of books that take a reader’s heart, macerate it and then put it through the shredder, so I was wary of reading this one. On the whole, the witty and inventive voice of Niffenegger keeps it intriguing more than heart wrenching, and this is a novel deeply informed by art and philosophy, which lend it beauty and intricacy. But underlying its lighter moments is a steady current of darkness. Henry’s time traveling is far more a liability than it is a gift, and fundamentally the problem is that he arrives in his new dimension naked. If he remained dressed, the whole complexion of the journey would change. But figuratively and physically vulnerable, Henry is always an accident waiting to happen. There is no real motivation for this other than Niffenegger’s dark vision. I understand that Henry is supposed to be unable to take anything through time with him, but this isn’t entirely true; whatever injuries he’s sustained make it backwards, or forwards again and it seems just plain mean of fate that he’s lumbered with his wounds but deprived of his clothes.

And so the darker moments accumulate, Henry’s existence becomes ever less viable, and from two-thirds of the way through it becomes apparent that tragedy waits in the wings for our time-crossed couple. The tragedy is the only part of this narrative I had a problem with – it was the only time that the time travel looked like a device and was used as a very blunt deus ex machina. But once it was out of the way Niffenegger had something even more bitter, and yet terribly sweet, up her sleeve to create a perfect, tear-soaked ending. This is sentimental stuff here, the kind of storyline that make you hold tight to your loved ones and bless merciful, banal reality, but it is continually upheld by strong writing and a sharp intelligence. I didn’t expect to like this book, but I ended up admiring it, and Niffenegger, for having produced something very unusual, that felt surprisingly real.


26 thoughts on “The Time Traveler’s Wife

  1. I thought this was excellent when I read it. Perhaps the tenacity of their relationship won me over, despite the darkness you elucidate so well.

  2. It’s a clever but very wily device, time-travel. It sounds like she handled it well. Not the sort of thing I would ordinarily pick up, probably because time-travel done poorly is just the pits, and who wants to risk it (Litlove! Always on the frontier!), but knowing this… well, maybe times have changed (arf arf).

  3. I really enjoyed this book too, and I particularly liked the darkness of it that you describe. I love how time travel is more of a problem than anything else and how it allows the author to explore what it means to know the future.

  4. I didn’t like this book – I think I’m in the minority. I enjoyed your post much, much more! I suppose I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief and it irritated me so much.

  5. Me too, loved this! Much to my surprise. I thought it sounded rather silly and contrived and only read it because a friend whose taste I respect told me she was deeply moved by it. It is, as you say, surprisingly ‘real’, and that is the heart of it, I think. The fantasy fiction or science fiction that appeals to me (eg Christopher Priest, Marge Piercy) is always the kind where an fantastical story is used as a vehicle for making strong and resonant points about what our ordinary lives are actually like. As this book does, very powerfully, about life, fate, randomness, our fragile sense of self, and perhaps above all about how difficult relationships are, because we develop at different rates, our needs are rarely in synch. Audrey Niffenneger is obviously a very talented and interesting woman. Have you seen her graphic novel, The Three Incestuous Sisters? So beautiful as a work of art, as well as interesting and poignant as a story.

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  7. I’m so glad you liked the book! I loved it when I read it. My husbadn had read it first and sobbed at the ending so I knew I was in for it from the get go. I liked the dark aspect of the book too and I thought it was a nice twist on the well-worn time travel theme.

  8. I’m on the fence with this one–I’ve heard so much about it and have heard many good things about it, but I don’t do well with the whole macerating the reader’s heart and putting it through the shredder thing either, so I haven’t quite gotten to the point of picking it up yet. Is the journey worth the pain? I’ve loved reading your post about it, though, so perhaps that will suffice for the moment!

  9. I too liked this book an awful lot, and like others, I was surprised that I enjoyed it. It’s the kind of book that could easily just be maudlin, but it wasn’t. It earns its sentimentality, I think. Your review makes me want to go back and reread it!

  10. Great review. Once again you’ve convinced me to read a book I had no intention of reading since I considered time-travel to be too science-fiction-like for me. But now I’m very curious to find out more about Henry’s problems and Henry and Clare’s relationship.

  11. I’ll join the not-fond camp. I think Niffenegger couldn’t decide if this was science fiction or supposed to be realistic but she ultimately gave no proper explanation for many of Henry’s traits and time warps and does not define it as fantasy, leaving the book in a bind. If she had chosen one way or the other it might have garnered a bit more praise from me but Niffenegger completely ignored the logical aspects to the condition (naming it does not solve it) and handled it pretty badly. My dissenting thoughts.

  12. I read it. I liked it. I couldn’t possibly have reviewed it because in retrospect, when I was checking whether the author had taken true care of a detail or the time slips, I had to remember what Henry knew and what Clare knew. Ultimately, I followed the author in this tale rather than walking alongside her as she told the story. Still, I liked it. The structure of it was more compelling than the story, I think. And yes, it was sad, deeply sad for Henry as he struggled. It’s an odd one; I liked the possibility of the time travel, handled in a non-fantasy way while I intensely disliked the reality, the “rules” of his travel. Still, overall, for writing and structure, high marks!
    Nice the way you led into it, too, with your robes and exam-watching!

  13. Lilian, Anne, Bookboxed – thank you so very much! It’s always nice when my blogging friends have enjoyed a book too!

    Di – lol! yup, I’m fearless in the face of fiction – there are very few places I won’t go in the quest for a good read! 😉 I was afraid the time travel would be wet, but it did work for me (after an initial wobble when I wondered just how many Henry’s there were out there). Would be very interested to know what you thought of this one.

    Dorothy and Emily – the darkness is interesting, isn’t it? It’s the factor that changes the whole organisation of the story and makes it literary rather than genre fiction.

    Booksplease – wouldn’t it be a dull world if we all liked the same thing! I can understand why it might not work with some readers. That extreme realism hooked up to a fantastic device would not please everyone.

    Harriet – yes, I agree – I didn’t expect to like it but was so pleased to find it such a well-written book.

    Jean – I just love what you say about the science fiction elements proving illuminating ‘about life, fate, randomness, our fragile sense of self, and perhaps above all about how difficult relationships are, because we develop at different rates, our needs are rarely in synch.’ That’s perfectly it. I have seen The Incestuous Sisters in a bookshop and flicking through it thought it was very beautiful. She is certainly an author I’d like to know more about!

    Care, Stefanie and Grad – thank you so much for the kind words, so much appreciated! And Stefanie – if it makes a husband cry, you know you don’t stand a single chance of escaping dry eyed! I am impressed by his sensibilities, though.

    Danielle – it’s really only the last bit that’s very sad, I’d say the last 70 or so pages. I managed fine with it until then. It is a good book and well-written, but you know, there are so many wonderful books out there. I quite understand your uncertainty, and wouldn’t pick this up unless you found yourself in the right mood!

    Teresa – you’re right that it ‘earns its sentimentality’ – I think that’s a really good way of putting it.

    Pete – yes, it would be interesting to have another male perspective on this. I would be very interested to know what you think, as the whole time travel thing starts for Henry because of a trauma. Niffenegger is light on the psychoanalytic aspects, but they are certainly there.

    Bibliobio – all thoughts welcome here, including dissenting ones. I can quite see why it is not a book to suit everyone. The clash between realism and fantasy is abrupt and discontinuous, and if you found you couldn’t quite swallow the main premise, then I think it would be hard going.

    Oh – I must say I did have to stop and think a bit myself about the things Henry knew and if it was logical that he should know them. I’m still not quite sure how he knows all the dates on which he will visit Clare as a child, for instance. That, and the tragedy at the end, were the places when the time travel felt most like a device to me. But I also agree that the structure and the writing are very impressive. And I’m glad you liked the lead-in – it’s a story that always makes me laugh!

  14. I have a dreadful taste for movies that shred the heart and leave me sobbing for the last 30 minutes, but I don’t normally read books like that. I was another one surprised by how much I enjoyed this book when I read it, and recommended it to a friend who also wouldn’t normally read things like this, warning her about the emotional dangers of the last part. She had the exact same experience. There’s really something strange and amazing about the way it gives us this completely modern but fated love-and-loss. They don’t know everything, but they know they’re meant to be together and meant to be torn apart, and imagining the strength that takes when we’re only just strong enough to read about it…

  15. I loved this book so much when I read it and was thrilled to see your review of it (and not only because I know I wouldn’t be adding it to the TBR tome!). You’ve certainly done it justice (as I expected). What I remember impressing me most was how she took this extraordinary feature (time travel) and turned it into something that helped explore all the normal ups and downs of a married life. Brilliant.

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  17. Thank you for a beautifully written and insightful review! The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of my favorite books, and I’ve read it at least three times, but each time it seems to get better and better. I agree that it is not merely “chick lit” or a love story (no matter what the movie makes it out to be) but a deeply philosophical and meaningful novel. I am especially intrigued by its existentialism–It could be argued that Henry, through his displacement in time, has an existential crisis and search for meaning. Clare, by being his only constant in life, is not only his wife and lover but his source of purpose and meaning.
    The complexity of the physical act of time traveling is also intriguing. Yes, it is not explained as fully as it could have been. But I think that serves Niffenegger’s purpose. Time travel is as nebulous and indeterminate as the future, and Henry does not travel to the future as often as he travels to the past. He also grapples with the idea of time travel; he is left in the dark as much as the reader.
    I love the use of poetry and art in this book. The references to Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” (especially at the end, at the last moment) provide interesting literary nuances and connection to the themes of the book. I also really loved Rainier Maria Rilke’s poems at the beginning of each part, and the reference to Joseph Cornell boxes at the Art Institute (one of my favorite scenes in the book). Clare’s career as an artist, Henry’s as a librarian, and his father’s as a musician also add artistic depth to the novel.
    Though I feel like I know this book through and through by now, a few things are left unexplained. We still don’t know how Henry knows Clare’s friend Ruth at the wedding, though they’ve never met before. There are some interesting connections with the words “To world enough and time” from the Marvell poem. I don’t want to give anything away, but it comes up at three significant points throughout the book.
    I have a lot more to say about the ending of the book, but I don’t want to give anything away. I really enjoyed your review and your insights. Thank you!

    • This book haunted me and I looked up the poem. I also noticed it being repeated, but I only noticed Christmas and the end. If you wouldn’t mind, where is the third time?

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