Wed
Oct 22 2008 2:54pm

Sentimental Adventures in Time: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler’s Wife isn’t the kind of book I normally read. It’s a bestseller (an “international bestseller” according to the cover of my edition), a romance, and it’s SF written by someone who doesn’t read SF and doesn’t know SF-writing protocols. I read it because people I knew really liked it, and because libraries exist to let people try books with no strings. I got my own copy because I knew I’d want to read it again. It’s a strange book, but really powerful.

All good time-travel stories have the satisfaction of a clever sudoku or sliding block puzzle. This belongs with The Anubis Gates and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency in those terms. But the book it most resembles is Ken Grimwood’s Replay with its small scale personal focus.

There’s this otherwise ordinary guy called Henry who time travels in the way other people have epilepsy. Under stress, he finds himself elsewhere, usually visiting parts of his own past, but occasionally the future. He just turns up there, naked, visible, and very vulnerable. The novel is about his life, out of order (though the time travel makes you question the very concept of “order”) and the impact his life has on that of his future wife, Clare, who he first meets when he is thirty-five and she’s six.

In Knight Moves, the scientific team sent to study the teleporting animals dismiss the idea that teleportation could be chemical, because there just isn’t enough energy. It was strange to turn from that to Niffenegger’s handwave that not only teleporting but time-travel could be chemical, biological, and genetic. You just have to face that it’s silly and get on with it. (There are silly things in SF too.)

What Niffenegger does is make me buy it emotionally by showing me up close the effects it has. She isn’t interested in the handwaved details, she’s interested on the effect it has on people’s lives, on Clare and Henry and their friends. There are weird ethical issues—Henry spends a lot of time with Clare as a child and shapes her character, and when she meets him in real time she is already in love with him, though he isn’t quite the man she knows, yet, either. There’s also the fact that Henry always shows up naked. This means he needs to open locks, steal clothes, food, and shelter, and behave in ways that people normally wouldn’t. He runs every day because he needs to be in shape to outrun his problems in the past and the future.

Henry doesn’t behave like a character in a science fiction novel. He’s kind of a jerk, and he wants to lead a normal life. He has no fantasies of political agency. The things fans would do with his abilities don’t occur to him. He goes to see concerts of bands that have broken up and visits himself as a child, his wife as a child. He copes well with the fact that he can’t really change anything, but the things he tries to change are all small personal things. He does win money in the lottery, but he keeps on working in a library—where his habit of running around naked in the stacks attracts some attention. He neither keeps his time traveling a secret nor holds a press conference—he tells his friends and family, he gets a doctor trying to work on a genetic cure, he tells his co-workers when he has to, and he tells Clare the second he meets her, when she’s six.

I’ve been talking about Henry, because he’s easier to talk about than Clare, although the book is titled for her and she’s just as important. Clare grows up with a list of dates when she’s going to meet Henry. She knows from the time she’s twelve that she’ll marry him one day. She never knows what age he’ll be when he turns up behind her house, though she knows he’ll need clothes, and keeps a stash of them for him. She does not, and the text is very clear about this, grow up like an ordinary person. Henry’s time travelling has more of an effect on her than it does on him. They both have to cope with it, and that’s what makes this such a good book.

The end made me cry quite a lot, both times I’ve read it. I can see how some people find it emotionally manipulative, but if it’s pushing buttons it pushed mine quite successfully.

18 comments
Megan Messinger
1. thumbelinablues
AH.

I was thinking just this morning that I want to re-read The Time Traveller's Wife -- it was as I put my wallet back, thinking of Henry teaching little Henry how to pick pockets. I cry at the end, too, although the thing with his feet always seems a little overboard.
David Sandey
2. DavidSandey
Thanks for bringing such a great book to the attention of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy reading masses.

The joy of reading what us genre fans would readily identify as Sci-Fi or Fantasy is precisely that they tend not to follow the same old tropes, the characters often have different motivations, they are free to be refreshing and challenging in a way that pigeon-holed books tend not to be. My only problem with books like The Time Traveler's Wife is that for genre readers they are hard to discover.

What we need is good reviewers highlighting great books without worrying where they are stacked in the bookstore.

Thanks again for doing this. Oh! I had discovered this and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a book that I could easily share with the non-genre fans in my family.
Angela Korra'ti
3. annathepiper
I loved this book immensely, and I'm quite looking forward to seeing if its movie adaptation is actually going to take shape! Thank you for giving it a shoutout.

The disjointed flow of time and how it impacted Henry and Claire's relationship is the biggest thing I loved about it. It was a great way to take something fantastic and make it very real.
Michael Cassidy
4. barnowl66
Perhaps this should be on my reading list....
Joe Sherry
5. jsherry
If I remember the chronology correctly, while the novel initially feels disjointed because Henry is at different ages throughout the novel, the novel is linear in following Clare's age. I *might* be wrong about this since it's been a number of years since I last read or throught about the book, but I'm pretty sure I'm right.

I stayed up late to read the book.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
A movie? How could they make a movie? They couldn't. The whole thing about what ages the characters were would be off, and that would throw the integrity off. I find it very hard to imagine.

I don't understand this need to make movies out of books. Can't they make up their own stories?
Pablo Defendini
7. pablodefendini
I actually just read this last week for the first time, and absolutely loved it. I hadn't inhaled a book so quickly in a long time. I'll give it a second, slower read soon.

The first time anyone mentioned The Time Traveler's Wife to me was within the context of the short-lived Journeyman TV show starring Kevin McKidd: similar premise, but much less about the wife, or the relationship, as about the time-traveling husband's adventures. While not an adaptation of the book by any stretch of the imagination, I could see Hollywood taking their hacksaw at a similar concept, and calling it The Time Traveler's Wife, in the same way that the Will Smith movie was named I, Robot. *shudder*
Eugene Myers
8. ecmyers
This immediately became one of my favorite books when I read it, and I also had to buy my own copy to reread later. I love the bit with the cage in the library... But then, I'm a sucker for good time travel stories and real characters you can care about. I still think of it as an SF book even if it isn't marketed as such. Perhaps it's one of those useful "gateway" books that can convince non-genre readers to embrace SF.
Kate Nepveu
9. katenepveu
Henry and Clare's relationship sounds like it would completely creep me out, actually. Is it handled in some non-creepy way?
Sandi Kallas
10. Sandikal
I read "The Time Traveler's Wife" a few years ago and absolutely loved it. Time travel is one of my favorite SF subjects, but it's so rarely done. I loved how this novel used a genetic/biological means for time traveling. I felt so sad for Henry and Clare as they kept losing babies.

DavidSandey, I'm starting to venture more into the fiction and general literature section of the bookstore. There are a lot of wonderful non-genre books out there and I was beginning to feel like I was missing something by not exploring non-genre or even other genres. In addition to some good literature, I've found some good mystery/thrillers and a couple of good horror books. Science fiction will always be my first love, but I like other stuff too.

Katenepveu, for some reason the Henry/little Clare thing never struck me as creepy when I read the book. It was only looking back on it much, much later that I got the oogies about it.
Peggy Pennell
11. peggypennell
I also highly recommend the audiobook version which is read by a man and a woman, it's very well done and available on Audible. With the two distinct voices it seems easier to follow the story than when reading it. As usual, with no rationality at all, after listening to it I had to own a print version too.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Kate: It's creepy (how could it not be?) but it knows it's creepy, even if the characters don't entirely appreciate how odd it is. The weirdness of it is a lot of what the book is about -- the weirdness of time travel and people growing into each other when they have disparate age things in both directions, and disparate knowledge too. When they meet in real time, Clare knows a lot about Henry's future, which he has told her in her past, and which he doesn't know. It's not as unbalanced as you'd think. I think that's part of what makes it good.
Debbie Moorhouse
13. GUDsqrl
I hated this book. The narrative is incapable of separating the voices of the two supposedly different narrators, and Henry is just a manipulative shit.

Ahem. Not that I feel strongly about it or anything....
Booknutt
14. Booknutt
Such a great book, but a shame in two ways. Firstly, this book along with others (The Gargoyle by Davidson & The Sparrow by Russell are two good examples.)that I have termed "Literary Sci-fi/Fantasy, are gobbled up by book clubs. Book clubs that would never read "normal" Sci-fi/Fantasy. They are books that normally they would turn their noses up to if they weren't shelved in the Fiction sections of most stores.

Secondly, fans of Sci-fi/Fantasy rarely hear about these books because they are not shelved in Sci-fi/Fantasy and/or they are not promoted to this group of readers.
Stephanie Leary
15. sleary
This is probably my favorite book published in the last decade or so. However, I should point out that the audio edition, though exquisitely produced, is also heavily abridged. They excised several minor characters and a lot of the seedier plot threads. For example, Henry's experiments with drugs before he tries the doctor aren't in the audio version... which means they had to mostly do away with his dealer, too, and that's a shame because he's a great character.

I listened to the first half of the book while driving. When I found my place in the dead tree edition, I was thoroughly lost, and had to flip back to figure out who these extra characters were.
Booknutt
16. jenfullmoon
It's my favorite book, and it has my two least favorite plot elements ever in it. It's good enough to trump those.

With regards to creepy: they're aware of it. But what is far more disturbing is Alba. That wigged me out NO end thinking of the whole thing.
Sandi Kallas
17. Sandikal
Such a great book, but a shame in two ways. Firstly, this book along with others (The Gargoyle by Davidson & The Sparrow by Russell are two good examples.)that I have termed "Literary Sci-fi/Fantasy, are gobbled up by book clubs. Book clubs that would never read "normal" Sci-fi/Fantasy. They are books that normally they would turn their noses up to if they weren't shelved in the Fiction sections of most stores.

Secondly, fans of Sci-fi/Fantasy rarely hear about these books because they are not shelved in Sci-fi/Fantasy and/or they are not promoted to this group of readers.


I don't think this is as much of an issue as it was in the pre-internet days. I've found many wonderful books as a result of Amazon recommendations, the Yahoo science fiction and fantasy group I belong to, and friends reviews on GoodReads.com. The circle of word-of-mouth has gotten much wider.

(Was "The Sparrow" really shelved in the fiction/literature section?)
Booknutt
18. Booknutt
(Was "The Sparrow" really shelved in the fiction/literature section?)

Yes in some stores ever since her newer book Thread of Grace came out.

The publisher also in the last few years removed the blurb on the cover about the book winning the Arthur C. Clark award. So as to distance it from the "ghetto" & to get more book clubs to pick it up. (This was told to me by the Publisher's rep.)

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