The Time Traveler's Wife
Henry and Clare are two people whose lives seem inexplicably intertwined across time. Henry is a chrono-displaced person that has troubles staying in one place and time. All his life Henry has found himself dropping out of the present at the most inopportune times and landing in the past or future naked and alone. He’s come to accept his condition and tries to cope with the situations it gets him into on all too frequently. It helps that he's a good runner.
Clare lives life in a linear fashion like the rest of the world, but becomes Henry's confidante and eventually wife through a strange series of events. The relationship between Henry and Clare begins when the thirty-something Henry first appears to the six year old Clare on her parent's Michigan estate unexpectedly one day.
If the summary above sounds vague and not all that intriguing, it’s entirely my fault and not that of the novel. I am not usually at a loss for words when it comes to describing what I like or don’t like about a novel, but in the case of The Time Traveler’s Wife I found it extremely difficult to summarize the plot. The novel defies classification - romance, science fiction and ghost story all come to mind at different times. It’s also challenging to summarize in that the timeline of the story doubles back on itself so much that to attempt to describe the arc of the story in a coherent linear fashion would rob the novel of much of its allure and intrigue.
The non-linear narrative can be challenging to keep straight for the reader in any time travel story, but Niffenegger wisely provides the readers with clues at the beginning of each section indicating the relative ages of Clare and Henry as well as the date of the encounter. This becomes an essential tool for the reader to navigate their way through the novel since the author has also chosen to tell the story from alternating first-person viewpoints of Clare and Henry.
I initially found the alternating first-person point of views awkward, but as the story progresses the need to see both sides of the story becomes apparent, as does the author’s choice to tell the story in the present tense. Since the past, present and future are all relative to who is speaking when, the only logical way to write it is in the present tense of the character speaking.
The author’s secondary characters are all well drawn and feel deserving of their own novels, so rich are their back stories. The details of Henry’s career as a librarian and Clare’s papermaking skills had me convinced that the author must have experience in one or both fields. I was pleasantly surprised to learn in the acknowledgments at the end that it was all due to meticulous research, pure and simple. The skill with which the author weaves such details seamlessly into the story makes it a remarkable first novel.
With respect to the time travel in the story the author attempts to craft a pseudo-scientific explanation to Henry’s extra-temporal jaunts that’s better suited to a Michael Crichton novel than this novel. Niffenegger’s writing stands on its own merit without needing to be shored up with junk science. In some ways, the quest to diagnose and cure Henry’s ailment becomes more of a distraction from the real focus of the novel, namely Henry & Clare’s relationship with each other, their family, and friends.
As with life, Niffenegger’s conclusion to the story is anticlimactic and bittersweet. The author has so skillfully drawn us to these characters that we truly mourn the end the of the novel and our interaction with them.
Ultimately a story about the nature of love and loss, The Time Traveler’s Wife will make you question how you’ve spent you time on this planet and whether you’ve made the most of it.