Even though I had seen it several times in book stores, I never had much interest in reading Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Sure, it has a somewhat captivating cover, featuring a small girl standing next to a pair of empty men’s shoes. And of course, there was also the “national bestseller” seal stamped at the top. But something about the title just screamed “Nicholas Sparks” at me. I mean no offense to Mr. Sparks, nor his legions of fans. I just mean that I was given the impression that this was a novel geared mainly towards women. I got a definite “Lifetime Original Movie” feel from it.
Another strike against the book was how tired I had become of time-travel stories. It seemed that over the past couple of years, time-travel was everywhere. Several movies and TV series were doing it (Heroes, Lost, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Timecrimes, etc.), and several of them were doing it badly. So I was very burned out on the idea of time travel in a story.
I began to reconsider my stance on The Time Traveler’s Wife after a conversation I had with my friend, Siobhan. She’s a huge fan of the book (read her review on her website, Literary Reflections), and assured me that this was by no means a “chick book”. Since we’ve had similar views on other books in the past, I considered her strong recommendation and graciously borrowed her copy of the book. I’m glad that I did.
The story opens with 20 year old Clare Abshire staking out the Newberry Library waiting for her opportunity to meet 28 year old Henry DeTamble. 28 year old Henry DeTamble has no idea who Clare is. Not yet. But Clare knows him. She’s known Henry since she was 6 years old. Of course it wasn’t 14 year old Henry that she met. It was actually 36 year old Henry, who has suffered from a chrono-impairment (he unwillingly travels through time) since the age of 5. This brings me to the first great thing about the book. Each instance of time travel is detailed in a clear and logical way (very much unlike my cumbersome previous paragraph). Naturally it’s mysterious, but each trip feels like a well-crafted piece of a puzzle that you assemble as you go along. As I grew accustomed to the utilization and execution of Henry’s time travel, I quickly became enamored with the story.
After Clare spends her youth meeting and falling in love with older Henry, she finally meets present Henry in real time and eagerly begins her life with him. The two are exposed to many unique challenges, as to be expected. Clare is justified in worrying whenever Henry disappears for what may be a very short or very long amount of time. Henry ponders jealousy at the thought of Clare spending time with an older or younger version of himself. This factors are what you would expect to see when injecting an element of science fiction into a love story. What came less expected to me however, was the dark tone and sometimes almost sinister nature of some of Henry and Clare’s experiences. This is where Niffenegger shines, and what sets this book apart from other love stories. As it turns out, time travel can be quite a violent and sometimes bloody affair. Since Henry’s travels are often brought on by moments of tense stress, he’s often returned to periods in his life of great darkness, causing him to relive the most harrowing parts of his life. And since Henry cannot take along any physical materials on his travels, witnesses often react with great shock to the sudden appearance of a naked man in their midst. Henry gets in fights — often. He routinely appears in the middle of dangerous and life-threatening situations. Niffenegger doesn’t make light of these situations, and she doesn’t shy away from graphic detail in her descriptions of them. At the most tragic of events in the lives of Henry and Clare, Niffenegger plunges the reader into the story directly, explicitly, and vividly. In chapters describing their journey to have a child, rather than keeping things light-hearted and sweeping the ugly details under the rug, she dives right in with no fear of being dark, or even macabre at times. It’s gritty, it’s sometimes ugly, and it’s realistic.
While Henry is not without some serious faults, he and Clare are quite likable. It’s easy to sympathize with both characters, and to cheer for them when times are hard. It’s an unlikely romance, and it’s hard to fathom that it can actually work, but at the times that it works, it’s satisfying. Their story is equal parts beautiful and tragic, and it’s a fun read to accompany them on their journey.