Monday, September 3, 2012

Review: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

 Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2003

It's about:  Henry deTamble suffers from a genetic condition that causes him to travel, involuntarily, backward and forward in time.  This gives his life story a curiously circular structure; he periodically time-travels to visit his wife, Clare, through her childhood and adolescence, but when she finds him in college he hasn't met her yet.  (As I'm typing this I'm realizing how awkward and confusing it seems, but it does make some sort of sense within the universe of the novel.)  Then, throughout their decades-long relationship, he sporadically disappears and reappears in her present.  They work through typical and atypical marriage and life difficulties together.  It's an imaginative love story, but despite the concept it's not sci-fi-ish at all. 

I thought: Yeah, I'm pretty late to the party with this one.  I avoided it when it was hugely popular back in 2003-2005 because I mentally lumped it together with a million other titles that all frame female characters in relation to the men in their lives: The Bonesetter's Daughter, The Pilot's Wife, The Abortionist's Daughter, The Time Traveler's Wife, etc.  You get the idea.  The trend may have all been in my head, but that doesn't make it any more irksome to me.  Plus the general plot sounded mushy and lovey-dovey and annoyingly improbable.  So that's why I didn't read this book back when y'all were raving about it almost ten years ago.   

I like this cover best.
I'll never be wild about the title, but I can't deny that I really, really liked The Time Traveler's Wife.  It got off to a very slow start; I was at least half-way through before I realized I was enjoying it.  Henry and Clare's relationship develops gradually, which I think is what brings their story out of the weird time-bendy half-light and into the real world where real people have relationships that are somewhat similar to theirs.  At the same time, the unreal elements kept me interested.  Without the time-travel, this would be just one more story of courtship-love-marriage-hardship-ending.

I really liked and related to both Henry and Clare and their interesting, full-bodied selves.  I also enjoyed all the pretentious references to French and German literati and 90's music.  But that's just me.  Ms. Niffenegger's unassuming prose makes a nice frame for her sometimes elitist characters and plot points.

Of course, I do still have a few things to complain about: some dialogue tries too hard to be clever/funny and ends up being cringworthy, and I could have done without the paragraphs that detail Clare's papermaking work.  With no background on the art form, I couldn't even picture what she was doing and I didn't really care.  But those are such minor details, and I know I won't even remember them a month from now. My everlasting impression of The Time Traveler's Wife will be that of a well-told, unsappy romantic saga with just enough of a magical element to keep things interesting.  With an uninspired title. 

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: Just turn off your skeptical mind and accept the time travel.  It really does add to the story in huge ways. 

Warnings: Sex (some quite graphic) and swears and descriptions of several disturbing accidents

Favorite excerpts: “I wish for a moment that time would lift me out of this day, and into some more benign one. But then I feel guilty for wanting to avoid the sadness; dead people need us to remember them, even if it eats us, even if all we can do is say 'I'm sorry' until it is as meaningless air.”

“The compelling thing about making art - or making anything, I suppose - is the moment when the vaporous, insubstantial idea becomes a solid there, a thing, a substance in a world of substances.” 

What I'm reading nextMy Life in France by Julia Child