The time travelers in Knight in Shining Armor and Outlander are rank amateurs compared to Henry DeTamble, hero of this mind-blowing debut novel. Thought-provoking, funny, disturbing and tragic, The Time Traveler’s Wife is the most memorable book I’ve read in 2003. I highly recommend it to readers who are looking for a unique (although bittersweet) love story.
Describing the plot of the novel is as difficult as describing an Escher print. Henry has a genetic disorder that causes him to time-travel at random moments, most notably when he’s stressed. He’s never sure when he’ll vanish from the present or how long his journey will last, but he always appears in the future or past stark naked. Because of this problem, he has learned several important skills, including running very fast (people of any era tend to take a dim view of naked men showing up in public) and stealing wallets to pay for food or shelter. The love of Henry’s life is Clare Abshire. Clare first meets Henry in 1977 when she is 6 and he is 36; he appears in the meadow of her rural Michigan home. But Henry first meets Clare in 1991 when she is 20 and he is 28; she is doing research in the Newberry Library in Chicago where he works. Confused yet? You see, Henry pops up in Clare’s childhood many times, but he is traveling backwards from his 30’s and 40’s. When Clare finds him in 1991, Henry hasn’t started time-traveling into her life yet, so he knows nothing about her even though she is already in love with him.
To explain more would ruin the surprises waiting inside this extraordinary novel, which chronicles Henry and Clare’s life together in the past, present and future. Their love and passion are unwavering, even though Clare never knows when Henry will disappear for hours or days at a time and Henry never knows what dangers he will encounter during his traveling. A few of their closest friends and relatives know of Henry’s problem, including a physician who tries to cure what is eventually labeled as Chrono-Displacement Disorder, but for the most part Henry tries to live as normal a life as possible with Clare when he is in the present. Two things shadow their happiness; Clare’s desire for a child, and Henry’s growing belief that during one of his adventures, something will happen that will prevent him from growing old with his beloved wife.
The Time Traveler’s Wife clocks in at slightly more than 500 pages, but time flies (hah!) while you’re reading it; be prepared to absorb most of it in one sitting. Sometimes it feels like a Möbius strip as you try to follow the mixed-up chronology of Henry’s journeys, which become so convoluted that he occasionally meets himself in time. Niffenegger wisely labels each chapter with the exact date, as well as Henry and Clare’s ages, to give it context. The best part of the novel is the first half, as the adult Clare and Henry’s attempts to build a real relationship together are interspersed with flashbacks (flashforwards?) to scenes when Henry visits Clare’s childhood. You’ll be shaking your head in amazement as you puzzle over who fell in love with whom and when it really happened – or was it all just one big time continuum? But the tone becomes more grave in the second half as tragedy looms, and it’s almost painful to turn the pages as the inevitable conclusion approaches.
To be honest, neither Henry nor Clare are completely sympathetic characters. I can accept that Henry has to resort to less than honorable ways of surviving when he time-travels – he may pick an occasional pocket, but he never hurts anyone intentionally – but I wanted him to use his skills to do more good in the world, even if he is forbidden from changing the course of history. Clare is fortunate enough to have a trust fund that enables her to work full-time on her unusual paper sculptures, and she too is somewhat self-centered, especially towards the end of the book when another individual obviously needs her love and care.
The novel just misses keeper status because of an almost imperceptible lack of emotional intensity. I was so busy being intellectually fascinated by the time-traveling puzzle that I wasn’t as engaged as I could have been. Niffenegger chooses to keep the melodrama to a minimum, which keeps the story from becoming overly sentimental, but a few more impassioned speeches about how and why Henry and Clare love each other would have given the ending more of an impact.
Once I finished the book, I immediately turned to page one and started re-reading it. Some of the passages make a lot more sense once you know the complete time-line of events, so they resonate with more emotion the second time through. Perhaps that’s the key to the story – like Henry’s time traveling, reading the book becomes almost a continuous loop. Film rights for The Time Traveler’s Wife have already been purchased by Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt; read the book soon before Hollywood has a chance to spoil this one-of-a-kind novel.