Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife

Review of the novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is a fascinating, thought-provoking, and emotional book about a couple who are drawn together because of, and stay together despite, a crippling science-fictional condition one of them possesses. It has its flaws, but I can genuinely say that it held my attention all the way through (and despite its length it’s actually a pretty fast read), and that I’ve kept thinking about it for days after finishing it.

Henry DeTamble is the man with the condition: From time to time he unwillingly disappears from wherever he is and reappears at some other time and place. Nothing comes with him – he arrives naked – and he has no control over when it happens or where he ends up. He has a tendency to travel to places near where he was in “normal time” at that point in time, or near where his wife Clare was, and he typically travels into the past, although not always. Henry’s condition is genetic. His parents were both musicians, although his mother died when he was young and his father was disconsolate from that point on, leaving Henry largely on his own, growing up among American punk culture in the 1970s and becoming a librarian in the 1980s. His condition can be life-threatening, as appearing stark naked in some locations without warning (say, in the middle of a freeway) can be quite dangerous. Henry is a running freak, since, as he points out, his survival frequently hinges on his being able to run faster or longer than other people.

His wife, Clare Abshire, is the daughter of a wealthy family in Michigan. She meets Henry for the first time when he appears in a field near her house when she is six years old, and they become friends during his irregular visits throughout her childhood. Henry, on the other hand, first mets Clare when he is 28 and she is 20, when she runs into him at the library. She of course knows a lot about him, while he’s extricating himself from a bad relationship and has never seen her before.

The novel is the story of their romance, and how they each cope with his condition: Henry’s problems are obvious, but Clare has to deal with his regular disappearances, not know where he’s gone, how long he’ll be, or what condition he’ll be in when he returns. The story is narrated by Clare and Henry each, in the present tense, and with sections detailing the date and their respective ages at the time (important due to Henry’s travels). The first half of the book focuses on Clare meeting Henry, and Henry meeting Clare. The second half concerns their married life and destiny.

Niffenegger has pretty cleverly worked out the timeline of Henry and Clare’s lives, and everything holds together in a consistent fashion. She does a fine job of addressing the paradoxes of time travel, positing a universe in which the past cannot be changed, nor can the known future, and the characters discuss this philosophically from time to time. While she keeps things simple by not having the characters lie to each other (at least, not to purposely try to change things), the intellectual character of Henry’s condition works well and is rewarding.

The book seems mis-named, however, since the story is really more Henry’s than Clare’s: Henry is a more fully-realized character, he’s the one who is more squarely in danger, and his reactions seem more visceral and believable. Clare always seems like a bit of a tabula rasa, an extension of Henry but not a lot more than that. She’s an artist, but that has almost no impact on the story. While The Time Traveler’s Wife implies that the book is about how Clare deals with Henry’s condition, it’s really about how Henry deals with Henry’s condition, and how he tries to shield and protect Clare, and help enrich her life despite his handicap. This is not to say that Clare is selfish or unlikeable, she’s just not as well-drawn as Henry.

(I kept finding it very odd that Henry is a big fan of the American punk rock scene, since I hate punk rock. But, oh well!)

The book’s plot is fairly straightforward, as it becomes clear that in 2006 something is going to happen, and the larger story concerns the couple living their lives as they head towards that time. But there are many episodes along the way which provide the real meat of the story: Clare falling in love with Henry as a teenager and trying to seduce him, Henry being overwhelmed by Clare when he first meets her, Henry meeting Clare’s family, Clare meeting Henry’s father, their marriage, Henry trying to find medical help for his problem, their attempts to have children. Many of these have some really clever elements to them: The wedding in particular is quite cool.

Despite Clare’s shortcomings as a character, the relationship between Henry and Clare is very powerful, especially since Henry is such an emotional character, deeply conflicted about many of his relationships, but wholly devoted to Clare. By the book’s final third, their love and their pain are both crystal-clear and fully drive the events which close the book.

I was disappointed in the ending, though. I think Niffenegger missed an opportunity to surprise and delight us in the ending, and thereby craft a better story. I’ll comment more about it after a spoiler warning down below.

Is the book science fiction, or fantasy? I say the former. While Henry’s condition has no scientific explanation, the spirit of the book is one of rational exploration of the bounds and ramifications of Henry’s condition. Well-regarded SF novels such as those of Vernor Vinge (Marooned in Realtime and A Fire Upon The Deep) have similarly-implausible premises, but take a rationalistic approach to working with them. More than the scientific nuts-and-bolts of the backdrop, I think that sort of attitude makes a book solidly science fiction, rather than fantasy.

Despite its flaws, The Time Traveler’s Wife really is a terrific read, a very good example of crafting a “high concept” story, and I think much more successful than its near-contemporary in “mainstream fantasy”, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It may not get my highest recommendation, but I think you’ll be glad you read it.

Spoiler comments about the ending follow:

I think the ending could have gone a couple of different ways, and I think Niffenegger chose the wrong one: The fatalistic march to Henry’s end. Of course we’d been anticipating for 400 pages that something would happen, since we never saw a Henry from the future more than 43 years old, so of course his death was one option, but another option was that he stopped time traveling. I think this could have been handled in a few different ways. For instance:

  1. Henry could have jumped into the future (say, ten years) to a point where he could be cured, and be fortunate enough to (or through clever planning) arrive just when people were ready to apply the cure before he faded out. This could have retained some of the melancholy of the book – since he’d disappear from Clare’s life for some time without her knowing what happened, while having a happier ending.
  2. Henry could have cheated his fate by actually changing the past or creating some sort of time paradox. This is appealing because since Henry’s situation was so meticulously defined and explored, breaking out of the basic scenario seems like a very cool exclamation point to put on the story.

I was annoyed that Henry meets his fate with such a grisly bit of foreshadowing: Having his feet amputated, and then being forced to witness (and inspire) Ingrid’s suicide. It all felt unnecessarily gruesome.

But I think what really annoyed me about the ending is that it felt so empty: Henry dies rather needlessly, and we don’t really get to see Clare learn or grow from the experience. Indeed, quite the opposite is implied: She seems to turn within herself, which is just what Henry really wanted her not to do. This seems to underscore the emptiness of her character, and that’s just disappointing. A melancholy ending a la that of Babylon 5 can work in drama providing it really means something, but Henry’s death didn’t really mean something. Even its absence of meaning doesn’t hold any messages about life for the reader; Henry lives this weird and difficult life, and then dies. Oh well.

I guess if there is a little ray of hope, is that his daughter Alba helps bring his father out of his shell. But that’s too much a side issue to be really rewarding.

So: Good book overall, but I really wish it had had a different ending.

6 thoughts on “Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife”

  1. Regarding Henry changing his own history: Maybe I was misreading the book but I seem to recall quite a few times when they discussed that one of the underlying concepts was that one *couldn’t* change history. No matter what – There was nothing you could do that would change things. Making this story more about fate then, than time travel. So even though we could *all* see what was coming it didn’t matter – Henry couldn’t change it if he wanted. I found that a refreshing change in a time travel story, actually… Most deal with OMG, what if I step on a flea and George Washington is never born?!?!

    My favorite moments dealt with age and love – As someone who has been involved with an older man (whom I’ve known my whole life) I was really interested in some of Claire’s perceptions/views about Henry through her experience with him. Several lovely moments between the two surprised me, skewing the paradigm in a whole new way for me. For instance, my favorite scene was when Claire and younger Henry are at the night club and she is thrilled to have a moment with older Henry, whom she misses desperately – She is still going through the motions with younger Henry, waiting for him to “grow up” into the man she loves. I keep going back to explore the idea here… WHO do we fall in love with? Could I have loved the younger version of my Love if I had not fallen in love with his older self first? Are they the same person? Do we miss out on great loves because we meet them at the wrong time?

  2. My favorite moments also deal with age and love. Older Henry watching a sleeping Clare. Henry seeing his daughter (whose name I have forgotten) on a school outing. Etc. (The latter is my favorite scene in the whole book.) I don’t have a problem with the ending. It works. My main problem had to do with Niffenegger’s ability to write Henry as a man. I felt like she went overboard. Some of the “manliness” seems forced. But overall, I think it’s a great book. Better than Jonathan Strange? Not for me. And not better than Cloud Atlas, either. But certainly this book belongs with those two as part of my top three recent speculative fiction reads. Each of them has great writing and great stories.

  3. Agent: Well, since the book is told entirely in the first person, all we get is Henry’s opinion (from his experience) that history cannot be changed, and examples of how things subtly “just work out” to preserve that apparent truth. But I would have had no problem at all had this turned out to simply not be true at the crucial moment.

    J.D.: I found Niffenegger’s writing of both genders to be a little odd, but it’s difficult to put my finger on why. I don’t think she went overboard in portraying Henry, but he is a somewhat extreme personality in some ways. However, I’ve known a few men who resemble him in some aspects quite closely.

    Henry’s daughter’s name is Alba.

    I’d never even heard of Cloud Atlas until you mentioned it here!

  4. I’d never even heard of Cloud Atlas until you mentioned it here!

    Really? I find that hard to believe. It’s a good book, though challenging for some. (Not for you, I suspect.) I’m not going to write much about it for fearing of spoiling it (and I suggest you don’t dig too deeply, either), but I do think you’d like it. Part of the pleasure for me was listening to it. The audio version is great.

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