Book Review of The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
What do you do when you meet the love of your life when you’re six years old? And he’s 36, but he’s really only eight years older than you are? If you’re Clare Abshire, you wait for each of his visits throughout the years until you meet him in real time.
Henry DeTamble is a time traveler, although not by choice. A genetic mutation causes him to spontaneously travel through time, disappearing from view, leaving behind his clothes and possessions, and arriving naked in another time and another place.
For the most part, this is a curse. Henry often has to turn to petty crime to feed and clothe himself when he travels, and must run from people, thugs, or the police. Eventually Henry returns to his present time, bringing only the bodily injuries he’s suffered back with him. Sometimes he travels back in time and visits an earlier version of himself. One of the places to which he travels often is the meadow behind Clare’s house, and throughout her younger years, Clare meets him there and falls in love with him.
This is the basic outline for the story of Henry and Clare in Audrey Niffenegger’s remarkable debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife. This is far from a science fiction exploration of the space-time continuum, but a heartfelt love story of two people who must live with this curse as part of their lives. Ms. Niffenegger has thought through all the ramifications of the time travel, and sewn it seamlessly into the storyline. Once you accept that time traveling is a part of Henry’s life he can’t control, nothing that happens to him seems farfetched or out of character.
The Time Traveler’s Wife follows the story of their lives mostly in a straightforward chronology, at least from Clare’s perspective. She’s a child and then a teenager with their secret rendezvous throughout the years in the meadow. Henry first visited her at an older age, so he knew the dates that the earlier versions of himself would visit the older versions of Clare.
She kept clothes hidden for him in the meadow and sometimes hid him in a basement room of her house. He was her big secret that she always kept to herself. How could she explain the presence of an older man who traveled through time to be with her? As a teenager, she was rumored to be a lesbian since she had no romantic interest in boys.
In those early days of her life, Henry knew much about her future, but declined to tell it to her. Not that she could have done anything about it. Henry often knew things that were going to happen, but nothing he could do would stop them. They still happened. Once Clare became an adult, she knew she had to wait to meet Henry in real time, and that he would be her lover.
When they did finally meet, Henry in the present was a younger man, who had not yet traveled to the meadow to meet Clare. At this point, she knew parts of his future that he did not. As Clare and Henry merge lives, his time traveling excursions become times that he is absent from her life, even if he’s traveling back to meet a younger Clare. Clare explains after living with Henry for a while:
Our life together in this too-small apartment is punctuated by Henry’s small absences. Sometimes he disappears unobtrusively; I might be walking from the kitchen into the hall and find a pile of clothing on the floor. I might get out of bed in the morning and find the shower running and no one in it. Sometimes it’s frightening. I am working in my studio one afternoon when I hear someone moaning outside my door; when I open it I find Henry on his hands and knees, naked, in the hall, bleeding heavily from his head. He opens his eyes, sees me, and vanishes.
Sometimes I wake up in the night and Henry is gone. In the morning he will tell me where he’s been, the way other husbands might tell their wives a dream they had: “I was in the Selzer Library in the dark, in 1989.” Or: “I was chased by a German shepherd across somebody’s backyard and had to climb a tree.” Or: “I was standing in the rain near my parents’ apartment, listening to my mother sing.” I am waiting for Henry to tell me that he has seen me as a child, but so far this hasn’t happened. When I was a child I looked forward to seeing Henry. Every visit was an event. Now every absence is a nonevent, a subtraction, an adventure I will hear about when my adventurer materializes at my feet, bleeding or whistling, smiling or shaking. Now I am afraid when he is gone.
Time travel has its advantages as well. Henry’s mother died in a car accident when he was a small boy. He often goes back in time to see her, although all he can do is watch from a distance. At the same time, he’s traveled back often, too often, to the fateful day that took her from his life. As Henry gets older, he learns more about his disease, and that stress and watching the flickering images on television can trigger an episode.
He can’t drive a car since he might disappear while behind the wheel, nor can he fly in a plane since it won’t be at the same place in the air when he returns from his travel. Once Henry convinces a leading geneticist that he can time travel, he enlists the doctor’s help is isolating the genetic problem and trying to control it with different combinations of drugs.
The novel is titled The Time Traveler’s Wife, but as Clare realizes, her life is so intertwined with Henry’s that it’s his story also. The story is told in first-person narration from both Henry and Clare. Each section begins with the date and the ages of Clare and Henry, and sometimes multiple ages for Henry when more than one version of him is present.
This allows us to see their lives from both their perspectives, to see Clare’s fear every time Henry leaves or how his actions in the past or future affect her life in real time, and to see Henry’s struggles to cope with his “illness” while trying to remain safe and keep the secrets that he shouldn’t reveal to anyone.
At its heart, and a very big heart at that, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a love story, one populated by realistic characters. Even with the time travel and its effects on their lives, Henry and Clare are people you intimately know and empathize with, their fears and flaws common to us all. Everyone has a cross to bear, and Henry’s is unique.
Ms. Niffenegger does an admirable job portraying their life together, and exploring a love built over a lifetime that courses deep through both of them. Even through their rough stretches of their life, the lifelong fear of something terrible happening to Henry while time traveling, their anguish at the miscarriages when Clare wants a baby more than anything else, the moments where they’d just rather be alone, their love for each other is never questioned and their hope is never extinguished.
The time travel, while not completely an original idea, does bring a spark of freshness and suspense to the love story. Knowing that stress can trigger an episode, Henry plans carefully and worries often during potentially stressful situations, like his wedding to Clare or meeting her family for the first time. It also adds to the suspense of the story, not knowing when Henry will arrive or leave during any important part of their life together.
Although, at times it’s obvious where the story is headed in the larger sense, Ms. Niffenegger is astute enough to throw in surprises with Henry’s travels that either fills in lost knowledge about their pasts, or sets the stage for some part of their future. Often it’s these small portents of the future that keep the pages turning in the hope that they mean something other than what they seem to suggest.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is also more than a love story between two people. It explores all the relationships of their lives: their parents, families, friends, and ex-lovers. My only complaint is that, whether a realistic depiction or not, love in this novel is something from which recovery never seems to happen.
Henry’s father mourns his beloved wife to the point that it cripples and debilitates him. Ingrid, Henry’s old girlfriend, despairs to the point of suicide about losing Henry to Clare. Everyone loves with such a passion that there is no middle ground, no loved and lost and grown from the experience.
This is a minor complaint in a wonderful novel. This book will make you glow as you share the love between Henry and Clare, it will make you laugh, it will leave you on the edge of your seat while Henry time travels, and it will make you cry. Once you’re buried within this novel and fully immersed in their lives, you have to suffer their pain as well as celebrate their joys with Henry and Clare. This is a testament to the literary skill of Ms. Niffenegger.
Henry summarized his love for Clare in a letter to her after they’ve been for married for many years:
Clare, I want to tell you, again, I love you. Our love has been the thread through the labyrinth, the net under the high-wire walker, the only real thing in this strange life of mine that I could ever trust. Tonight I feel that my love for you has more density in this world than I do, myself: as though it could linger on after me and surround you, keep you, hold you.
Grab a copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife and throw yourself headlong into their story. It’s time well spent. This is a highly recommended read, and I know it will be a gift I’ll offer generously to others on my holiday list this year.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.