The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

(4.8/10) Tragically Audrey's romance descends into self-indulgence

As a lifelong Whovian I am of course extremely fond of and familiar with time travel stories. Romance however has been something I’ve been generally less keen on, which is why when a friend lent me Niffenegger’s book in 2010 I returned it to her unread. Since I am now however manifestly in more of a position to appreciate books with a strong romantic element, especially during cooperative reading ventures with my lady, catching up on The Time traveler’s Wife seemed a good idea, since this was a book my lady had read before and had previously enjoyed.

The book alternates in viewpoints between the two title characters, Henry DeTamble and his wife Clare Abshire. Henry suffers from a rare genetic disorder, chrono impairment which causes him to involuntarily vanish and reappear naked in a different time and place. As the book opens in 1991, Henry is 28 and has been living the life of a womanising playboy while he works at the Chicago public library. When a 20-year-old Clare walks into the library and instantly recognizes Henry as the man who has been part of her life since the age of six, she knows this is the point that they begin their life together.

The story then shuttles back and forth through time in a number of alternating scenes, each marked with a year and the retrospective ages of Clare and Henry (including those moments in which several versions of Henry are simultaneously present at one time). The book then roughly follows Clare’s chronological timeline, her first meeting with the present version of Henry, her marriage, their attempts to have children and the effects Henry’s sudden vanishing into time has on their lives. Interspersed with this are various scenes of both Clare and Henry’s past showing both Clare’s meetings with henry as a child and Henry’s own childhood becoming accustomed to his time travelling and teaching himself necessary survival skills, picking pockets and lock picking, since each time he time travels Henry arrives completely naked and thus must go about acquiring clothes and shelter (and indeed a criminal record).

The single most impressive thing about Audrey Niffenegger’s book is its structure. With each scene narrated in strict first-person tense and each character knowing and experiencing only what they know at that time, the way Niffenegger ties all the plots together is truly impressive, especially with how she is able to slowly give more revelations and for-shadowing through the book despite the fact that much of the time for-shadowing is actually after-shadowing. That being said, Niffenegger is careful not to make the book too complex to follow. While there are some distinct precursors and prophecies which are left as hooks to be explained later there are also plenty of occasions that Niffenegger only presents a brief joke or immediate two-sided situation, and for those moments she usually chooses to skip back and forward, showing both Henry’s arrival and departure comparatively close together.

I also use the term “joke” here quite literally, since while The Time Traveler’s Wife is unquestionably a romance and character study, I was surprised how much of the book is humorous, both because of the occasionally absurd spectacle of a naked Henry appearing or disappearing at inconvenient times, and because of the amusing connections or reactions of Henry and Clare’s friends and family, such as when Henry accidentally time travels at his own wedding and needs to be hastily replaced with an older version of himself, complete with lots of extremely funny running around in toilets, changing into different clothes and mystifying hotel staff.

I appreciated the way that Niffenegger puts considerable thought into her central premise, from Henry being unable to drive for fear that he will vanish at a moment’s notice, to the inconvenience of how Henry will maintain a normal job in the library when he keeps appearing there in the nude.

Lining up the various sections and seeing the plot elements connect together also for me meant that the book on the whole had a fairly rapid pace for the most part despite its 17-hour length, since usually the scenes themselves are fairly short and there is enough by way of incident and expectation to keep the plot going even through some of the more mundane passages. That being said, as a first novel The Time Traveler’s Wife does suffer from some minor stylistic issues. One is a tendency to reuse certain descriptive phrases and to not change narrative voice too much when characters are describing events to each other, indeed I frequently noticed that Henry or Clare as narrator had a rather too similar tone to Henry or Clare when talking to each other if description was needed. Since several places in the book involved Henry describing things he’d seen to Clare, which we then later got to experience with another Henry, this did cause certain passages (especially one emotional moment in the book’s climax), to feel slightly flat rather due to repetition.

I also did not appreciate the fact that Niffenegger’s language surrounding sex was rather unrefined. I am myself not the least prissy when it comes to cursing (as anyone who has been within hearing distance of me when I bash my knee can attest to). However, Niffenegger’s attempts to describe a supposedly transcendentally wonderful sexual relationship between Clare and Henry with Clare speaking of her “c*nt” (rhymes with hunt), were quite jarring since such words are rarely redolent of a loving connection. Likewise, I strongly disliked Clare’s frequent use of the phrase “f*ck me” when speaking of what she did with Henry. Not only does it have strong cultural negative connotations, but the subject/object clause of it being something that Henry does to Clare has quite worrying implications, particularly since in common parlance being the one who is “f**ked” usually denotes being over mastered or losing out to another.

It is not just in her probably accidental sexual language that Niffenegger paints this relationship as an unequal one. While Niffenegger handles Clare’s childhood friendship to Henry and her growing affection for him with extreme sensitivity, unfortunately still couldn’t escape the fact that basically Clare’s life revolves entirely around Henry, particularly with Niffenegger’s use of time travel predestination in her metaphysics, meaning all events are essentially fixed and Clare is unavoidably “destined” to be Henry’s wife.

While I can appreciate the idea that love is timeless (something my lady and I can absolutely attest to), at the same time the fact that Clare has little by way of life or relationships outside her marriage to Henry does make her feel a bit limited as a character, especially with how carefully Niffenegger shows Clare to be an intelligent, creative person with a talent for art.

This unequal quality is also emphasized by the fact that though Henry is quite the Lothario before he meets Clare, Clare’s few attempts at any sort of relationship outside that with Henry are universally disastrous (on one occasion actually abusive).

Slightly lopsided though this relationship feels, I can’t deny however that just as Niffenegger uses time travel to achieve some moments of high comedy, she also does periodically depict moments of pathos. It is not so much in Clare and Henry’s slightly over dramatic physical relationship, it is the small details, the occasional touches, the moments laughing together or even the discussion of their domestic arrangements with henry cooking and Clare doing the laundry (an arrangement which my lady and I found amusing since it exactly mirrors ours), that were most affecting and gave the idea that even if matters were a little unequal these were still two people who genuinely cared about each other.

Despite its good points however, the main problem I had with The Time Traveler’s Wife was exactly the same problem I had when Steven Moffat attempted a similar future past romance with River Song in Series 7 of Doctor Who. Namely I find it difficult to care about a romance when the characters in question are just not particularly likable. When the book opens with Henry very quickly falling into bed with a girl eight years younger than him the night he meets her, I assumed this was basically a symptom of predestination. However, it quickly becomes clear that up to the point he meets Clare, Henry is quite content to have a fling with pretty much anybody with two x chromosomes (plus on one notably nasty occasion even his past self).

While I did not mind Henry’s pickpocketing or breaking into shops to obtain clothes after a naked time jump, when his actions go as far as mugging someone and leaving them naked; someone who unlike Henry doesn’t have the luxury of vanishing back to the present in awhile, I found myself becoming more than a little uncomfortable, a situation not aided by Henry’s casual beating up of an admittedly aggressive homophobic drunk shortly after. It is not just Henry’s survival or his wanderlust that is a problem however, since frequently in his interactions with others Henry could be selfish, or even cruel, such as when he convinces a geneticist of the reality of his time travelling by callously revealing painful truths about the geneticists upcoming baby.

This selfishness did not just extend to Henry. Clare similarly could on occasion be quite callous and in the book’s second half started taking actions that were down right unpleasant, making cutting remarks and generally being less than likable.

Niffenegger has stated that even though Henry is intended as her idealised soul mate, Clare is not a carbon copy of Niffenegger herself. This may be true, however I could not shake the feeling that Clare was, if not literally the author, perhaps the way Niffenegger would like to be. Clare is extremely beautiful, from a highly privileged and wealthy background, always accepted, loved by all of those around her, never lacking for friends or creativity. Henry similarly is that most ideal of tropes, a handsome bad boy who morphs into a perfectly sensitive, utterly, faithful and artistic husband despite his time travelling and even fulfils the role of mysterious old uncle and perfectly realized first crush into the bargain.

Indeed, there are far too many moments in the book which read as a little too idealised, partly due to the time travel, from “love at first sight” to finding the perfect house by future knowledge, not to mention having an inexhaustible supply of money thanks to Henry’s time travelling ability to play the stock market and win the lottery. This even went as far as the adult Henry being able to exact a humiliating revenge for Clare after her date with an abusive sadist, (a revenge which is of course applauded by all of Clare’s ever supportive gang of friends).

Unfortunately, as the book progressed and Clare and Henry became ever more self-obsessed and insensitive I found my ability to identify with them and be involved in the connection they had rapidly decreasing. Indeed, when it was finally revealed that Clare was the object of desire for her best friend’s husband I finally found that I no longer cared at all, which meant that the book increasingly dragged as it progressed. There then followed a borderline obsession of Clare’s to conceive a child (something which again did not really show Clare as going beyond the traditional role of a wife) and was made even more problematic with that most annoying of plot devices, characters not talking to each other. Finally, the book culminated with an ending where the secondary cast all showered Henry and Clare with such effusive praise I actually wondered whether they were just too dense to see how shallow and self-obsessed the principle characters were.

The book’s metaphysics also presented a problem for the slightly dislikeable main characters, since if indeed, as this book possets time as entirely fixed and unchangeable with no way of altering the future, I couldn’t escape the idea that life was severely unfair for anyone accept the spoiled rich girl and reformed playboy of the book’s title, who got all the good things because time, or god or Niffenegger wanted them to and tough luck for anybody else.

The book’s ending again left me with the feeling that basically Clare had little autonomy besides her relationship with Henry, a relationship which, despite Henry’s charm and moments of humour was basically destined to work because the author was on their side, and nobody and nothing else really mattered.

Despite some wonderful moments of absurdist comedy, a few quiet details of connection and a truly compelling plot structure, The Time Traveler’s Wife all in all was rather disappointing, indeed Mrs. Dark stated that she disliked it far more this time than the first time around, mostly due to the character’s selfishness. If one removes the time travel from the equation what we essentially have is distinctly idealised romance in which a spoiled rich girl gets everything she wanted in the form of a childhood uncle come playboy and has everyone (including the author), love her for it.

Of course, idealisation in a book is not in itself a bad thing, after all books can give us something real life cannot and can see good deeds rewarded, love conquer all and patience and faith come to fruition. The problem in The Time Traveler’s Wife is that essentially, we see two self-indulgent, rich, good looking, popular people achieve every ideal in a gender traditional story book relationship. This makes the book something of a hymn in praise of the status quo, as opposed to a story in which decent people achieve their happiness despite suffering the travails of a cruel and bizarre twist of time.

It is a shame, Niffenegger’s plot construction, her undoubted facility with comedy and at least the nuts and bolts of her story telling technique are sound enough, and had she given us the romance of two deserving people who were kind to others and actually suffered for their good fortune I would have enjoyed the book far more.

As it is, this is not one I can recommend.

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