The Time Traveler’s Wife: A review

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey NiffeneggerIf I had to define The Time Traveler’s Wife (2004) by Audrey Niffenegger in two words they would be: poignant and excessive—two words that also illustrate my mixed feelings about Niffenegger’s first novel.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is about many things. Obviously time travel is an important feature, but this novel is also about librarians, artists, punk rock, and alcoholics. It’s also about love.

Henry meets his wife, Clare, for the first time when he is 28 and Clare is 20. Clare met Henry for the first time when she was six and Henry was 36. Henry is, literally, a time traveler—albeit not in any conventional sense. Henry has a disease: a cellular disorder that leaves him unglued in time, traveling at random to various points in the past and future of his own life and, inexplicably, to Clare’s childhood. Henry cannot hold onto any of his possessions when he time travels—no clothes, no food, no money—a fact that often has a disastrous effect on Henry’s life.

Throughout it all, Clare is at Henry’s side faithfully waiting for him to return to her and their life together. And that’s about it.

Niffenegger alternates viewpoints, narrating the story in both Henry’s and Clare’s voice. Despite giving the characters equal narration time, Clare remains painfully one-dimensional. She is defined by her love for Henry, her artistic career and, unfortunately, little else.

Thankfully, Henry is written much more fully. Working as a librarian at the Newberry in his present, Henry also has a complex life “out of time” that involves stealing, fighting, and never revealing too much about the future. He is also well-versed in the culture of drugs and drinking. Really, Henry is a mess is every sense of the word. Despite all of his problems, though, Henry remains redeemable. Throughout the novel he clings to a certain charm, a quality that makes it plausible to believe that Clare really did love him long before Henry first met her.

The novel jumps from past to present and back again while alternating between Henry and Clare’s voices as Niffenegger aptly examines at how Henry’s past intersects with his present and his future, and his evolving relationship with Clare. These examinations are a particular strength of the novel. Niffenegger manages to discuss events multiple times without being redundant. At the same time she creates a complex storyline without making it impossible to follow.

The Time Traveler’s Wife also provides an excellent discussion of the idea of determinism versus free will, a common theme in novels about time travel. This issue also proves crucial to the plot.

Given the non-linear nature of the novel, it would be impossible to discuss the plot in any comprehensive way. But we can talk about plot devices. As I mentioned, this novel is incredibly poignant. At points Niffenegger does create very compelling, vivid scenes.

Unfortunately, she does also falter. Most of the novel’s shortcomings stem from some kind of excess. First and foremost, it’s too long. (The hardcover edition runs 600 pages.) Particularly in the second half of the novel, it feels like Niffenegger takes on too much. There are too many characters to remember, too many events only tangentially relevant to the core plot. All things considered, the novel could easily have been at least a hundred pages shorter.

For this reason, the premise of the plot has some fundamental flaws—points that make no sense in relation to the rest of the narrative. On the whole, these blips are annoying but not damning (especially given the fact that the novel is marketed as general fiction as opposed to science fiction).

The Time Traveler’s Wife also veers dangerously close to melodrama, raining biblically disastrous situations on both Henry and Clare. Given the ending of the novel, one would think that merely being a time traveler would be enough bad luck to last both of their lifetimes. Aside from being plain old mean, this focus on events makes it difficult to develop the characters. Many interesting people walk in and out of Henry’s life, but few of them are adequately utilized in the book.

The scope of the narrative is vast and strongly cinematic, which leads me to two conclusions: One is that this story might have been better had someone else written it. The other is that the upcoming film adaptation will be better than the novel. Given the fascinating story and characters here, hopefully that will be the case.

Possible Pairings: I Remember You by Cathleen Davitt Bell, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban. Hourglass by Myra McEntire, The Statistical Probability of True Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone, Serendipity (movie)