As an English major, I was always under the impression that literary and popular fiction were genres that were fairly at odds with each other (and, coincidentally, you are supposed to like the former and scoff at the latter. My personal tastes tend to run the opposite way). It’s rare that a book can fit into both categories without the help of Oprah, but oh how I’ve found one.
Audrey Niffeneggar’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife has gained a lot of popularity since it’s 2004 release, making a permanent home in women’s book clubs worldwide because of its earnest and heartbreaking love story. But it’s really so much more than it’s blurb would suggest; it’s also a painstakingly precise, exquisitely written book.
The story is told from the perspectives of Henry and Clare DeTamble, a married couple who have to deal with the complications that have arisen in their lives from Henry’s Chrono-displacement disorder, an ailment that forces Henry to travel through time against his will.
Time travel is usually one of my least favorite genres because it leaves me with too many questions after I’m done watching or reading. Why didn’t the terminator just kill Sarah Conner as a baby? Shouldn’t Marty McFly have known that he was going to succeed at getting his parents back together because if they hadn’t then he wouldn’t be alive to go back to the future in the first place (or even time travel in the first place because Marty essentially tells Doc he would later make the time machine work in Back the Future II?) Stuff like that. I realize that there is a certain amount of suspended belief that one has to assume in entertainment, but it’s still annoying.
That being said, I could find no such annoyances in The Time Traveler’s Wife and if there were, I was too wrapped up in the story to care. To have accomplished such a thoughtful exploration of the theme of time travel is an enormous achievement because the concept of time travel is in itself so inherently complex. In the world that Niffeneggar has constructed, time isn’t linear per se; everything that will happen already has and therefore there it is impossible to change the course of the past or the future. This makes the ending (which I won’t ruin except to say that it’s not a cut-and-dry happy one) seem fairly appropriate and easier to swallow.
The best part about the book, though, is the love story that is the heart of it. Henry and Clare’s bond is built in trust and complete understanding. The DeTambles go through a lot in this book but their relationship isn’t something tragic, it is something beautiful born out of hardship and that makes it all the stronger. Because the storyline is so complex, it is fairly difficult to explain the way their relationship evolves, but it’s a bit like puzzle pieces coming together; Henry visits Clare first when she is eight and he is already married to her in his time. Clare falls in love chronologically with Henry who visits her at different points in his life.
I don’t know how Niffeneggar seems to so seamlessly keep track of everything, but she does, and makes a confusing premise extremely readable.
A movie version of The Time Traveler’s Wife has just finished shooting and stars Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams as Henry and Clare. I think the casting is inspired and hopefully the movie (due in November) will be able to live up to the brilliance of the book. Either way, we will probably get to see Eric Bana naked (Henry time travels in his birthday suit) so it’s a win-win.