The Time Traveler's Wife

by Audrey Niffenegger

Cover image

Publisher: MacAdam/Cage
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 1-931561-64-8
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 519

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Henry has time-traveled for most of his life. Starting as a child, he'd periodically experience seizure-like symptoms and then suddenly be somewhere else, in a different time, unclothed. The destinations clustered around important events and people in his life, although could be almost anywhere. Sometimes he'd be in another time for days; sometimes only for hours or minutes. When he returned, he may have been gone for much less or much more than his subjective impression of how much time had passed, usually for much less. He could never take anything with him, or return with anything. It was inexplicable, uncontrollable, and mostly unbelievable, except for Clare. Henry first showed up in a meadow at her parents' house when she was six, and appeared there over 150 times over the course of her childhood. Eight years older than her in normal time, Henry was part of her life for nearly as long as she could remember.

The Time Traveler's Wife takes the traditional heterosexual romance apart by giving the male protagonist a non-linear life. Apart from that one change, the rest of the romance is fairly conventional, although extending well into the marriage and through various post-marriage problems. But that one change has profound effects that cast parts of the romance in interesting lights.

For example, Niffenegger neatly includes and rewrites the typical love-at-first-sight trope by opening The Time Traveler's Wife with Clare meeting Henry for the first time in normal time. She's already completely smitten and has been looking forward to this moment for two years, during which she's not seen Henry at all. Henry has no idea who she is. The scene plays out much like a love-at-first-sight scene, but with a viable explanation and a mismatch of knowledge that makes it both more thought-provoking and more delightful than the typical romance. Throughout the story, Niffenegger uses time travel as a reassurance device of the reader, taking some of the stress out of the hard parts of the story and easing the reader through threats to the relationship. As someone who often finds painful relationships a bit more painful than I want to read, I appreciated that, although it may smooth things out a bit too much for people who prefer their romances uneasy and jagged.

The mismatch of knowledge is something that Niffenegger plays with effectively throughout. Henry tries not to tell either Clare or his earlier self details about how things work out in the future, but unlike some SF stories dealing with this premise, he slips up, reveals some information just by how he reacts or appears, and just cannot withhold some details. Clare knows far more about him than he knows about her in regular time, since she grew up with him. She occasionally knows things about the future that he hasn't discovered yet. Sometimes he travels into the future and learns things he doesn't want to tell her. The reader gets the union of their separate views and gets to have all the fun of putting the strands together.

The story is told in tight third person, interleaving scenes told from Clare's and Henry's perspective and putting the reader in both of their heads. I'm not sure how Niffenegger pulls this off; there's a great deal of time travel and a lot of folding over of the story, and the result should be horribly confusing at least in places. It never is. Niffenegger uses the technique adroitly for foreshadowing and hint-dropping but maintains a clean narrative line, giving the reader a clear biography of both of the protagonists and lots of opportunities to recognize the other "half" of a scene that had appeared earlier in the book. The skill with which she pulls this off is, I think, the most impressive part of this book.

The Time Traveler's Wife is not about the mechanism of time travel at all; from that perspective, it's fantasy, not science fiction. Niffenegger does introduce an entirely implausible medical explanation for Henry's time travel, purely for plot reasons, and science fiction readers should expect to cringe all the way through the explanations that show up. This is thankfully brief, and for the most part the characters neither attempt to explain nor think much about the mechanisms. Henry's had this happen to him since childhood and Clare has been exposed to it for nearly as long, so for both of them it's just life. This was a wise choice on Niffenegger's part. What Henry does cannot be explained through any normal physics, and any attempt to do so would have distracted from the point of the story.

Instead, as in the traditional romance structure it's based on, the book concentrates deeply on the two characters and their relationship. As hinted by the title, it centers on Clare, although Henry is a full protagonist in his own right. The book therefore succeeds or fails on the reader's empathy for the characters, and I found Clare a compelling success. Henry's interesting at times, although at times a bit too much of the damaged but sensitive man, but Clare shines. It helps considerably to get to see her as a smart, creative, and capable child as well as a creative and interesting adult. The reader gets to fall in love with her much the way that Henry does, watching her grow up. (The potential ickiness of Henry meeting her originally as a child and then later marrying her is handled smoothly, adroitly, and with sensitivity by both of the protagonists, defusing it entirely for me.)

Unfortunately, I think Clare, or rather the situation the structure of the book imposes on Clare, is also the biggest flaw of the book. Clare's entire life revolves around Henry in a way that goes beyond even the traditional romance. It's to some extent unavoidable, since Henry started visiting her as a child and transitions from an elder uncle role in her life into a future husband. She knows he's going to be there in the future, she remembers him from childhood, she's completely infatuated with him, and the unpredictable nature of his time traveling forces her into a largely reactive role. Since she's also the child of a rich family and Henry uses knowledge of the future to make quiet investment profits and remove money as a problem in their lives, she has very little forcing her out into the world apart from Henry. Both she and Henry have to deal with difficult (and realistic) problems with their extended families, but apart from that and her art projects (well-described, but a bit rare in the book), Clare seems to have little life outside of the romance.

Clare at one point compares her life with Henry to the life of a wife of a sailor, who sees her husband leave and isn't sure when he'll come back or if he'll come back. But the time traveling is both more random and more involving than that, partly because the time periods of absence are shorter, which means that Clare doesn't have the sailor's-wife opportunity to develop a separate life she can live when her husband isn't around. All of this leaves her with very little agency and little ability to change the direction of events, particularly since so much of her life is known in advance. Niffenegger uses the cast-in-stone solution to time travel paradox, where once an event is known to have happened it's forced into happening no matter what the characters do. This takes away even more agency. Since Henry is the one traveling, he at least has some illusion of control and proactiveness. Clare is forced into an almost entirely reactive position.

Obviously, not every book needs to take a strong feminist position with respect to its female protagonist, and the story pattern that Niffenegger is reworking has very conservative tendencies. Still, this started to bug me about half the way through the book, and the stereotypical nature of Clare and Henry's major disagreement and relationship struggles didn't help. The conclusion of the book, while bittersweet, pounds this home in some uncomfortable ways, leaving one with the feeling of Clare bounded, defined, and entirely encircled by this one relationship. It's a loving, beautiful, complex relationship, but it's still just a little creepy to me.

That said, I think most readers will be able to put that problem aside and still enjoy this story. The characters are complex and deep (including a wonderful character introduced late in the story), the intellectual exercise of piecing together the interwoven timelines from Henry's and Clare's separate perspectives is a lot of fun, Clare is smart and stands up for herself in the relationship, and I loved how Niffenegger introduces most major plot points of a developing relationship and analyzes and reworks them in the light of the introduced time travel element. If you like taking apart a traditional story structure and seeing how the pieces look in a much different light, this is great fun.

Don't go into this story expecting science fiction or you'll be sorely disappointed. The time travel part is best taken via pure suspension of disbelief, the one change from reality required to tell the story. But as a romance and as a commentary on romances, I found it quite enjoyable. Niffenegger does an exceptional job at keeping it clear and avoiding confusing the reader, and the pacing and momentum of the story is well-handled throughout. Recommended, particularly if you're sympathetic to romances, with the caveat that the gender roles are fairly strongly traditional.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-11-09

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21