"The Time Traveler's Wife"
(reviewed by Greg West APR 23, 2004)
In the 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five Kurt Vonnegut introduced Billy Pilgrim who had come unstuck in time. Billy wandered willy nilly to the past and future, met philosophical aliens, fell in love, and along the way witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden during World War II. Now in The Time Traveler’s Wife Billy is back, reincarnated in the character of Henry DeTamble. But Henry has little in common with Billy Pilgrim aside from his chronologic unstuckedness, for the author’s concerns are very different from those of Vonnegut. While Vonnegut focused his ironic scrutiny on the foibles of humanity in general, Niffenegger’s gaze is turned inward, toward (shall I say it?) the tangled mysteries of the human heart. There, I said it. So sue me.
You might say the The Time Traveler’s Wife is a love story with a time traveling twist, or a time travel story with a romantic twist. Both are true, and neither — and this is what makes it difficult to categorize. Is it science fiction? That depends on how exacting your definition is. Look at it this way: If you were to strip away the time-traveling element, the tale simply wouldn’t work; it would collapse without the support of its framework. Take away the love story, and there’s no story. All that’s left is a hapless guy unstuck in time with nothing meaningful to do.
Now the particulars. Clare Abshire is eight years old when she first meets Henry as he appears naked in her meadow. Henry is 28 when he first meets Clare in a library, both fully clothed this time. At this library meeting Henry doesn’t know Clare from Adam’s cat, yet Clare has known Henry since she was eight, and has always loved him. For Henry, it’s not quite love at first sight, but close enough. Thus begins the strangest, most convoluted love story I can recall reading, or seeing in the movies.
Henry has no control over when or where he goes. Think of it as a bizarre form of epilepsy, with which it shares certain symptoms. Henry may be contentedly reading a book, begins to feel light headed and nauseous, and suddenly finds himself naked in the middle of February, in the middle of the night, sprawled in eight inches of snow on a sidewalk in downtown Chicago. This is the reason Henry runs to stay in shape. He depends on his feet to keep him ahead of whomever may find him naked in their back yard or cornfield. He has taught himself to pick locks, to steal clothes and shoes, to pilfer food. For Henry it’s all a matter of survival.
Clare compares herself to a sailor’s wife who scans the horizon for the return of her her wayward Odysseus. She never knows when Henry will leave or how long he will be gone. Sometimes he is gone for minutes, sometimes an entire day. All that’s left of him are his clothes where they collapsed on the floor. All she can do is worry, and go about her business of making art.
No synopsis can prepare the reader for the twists and turns the story takes. Speaking for myself, it grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go until the last page was turned. It may be a romance, a love story, yet Audrey Niffenegger pulls no punches here. She is brutally realistic in her unfolding of the implications of her premise. The Time Traveler’s Wife is populated by characters the reader cares about, all fully realized human beings complete with unique idiosyncrasies, strengths and shortcomings. You’ll find no cardboard cutout clichés here. The dialogue is often clever, yet has the undeniable ring of authenticity. The plot flows naturally and unforced from the premise, and from the heartfelt desires of its characters.
I was surprised to learn that this is a first novel. It seemed too complete for that, too deft, and too carefully plotted. She is an artist and art professor who teaches writing to visual artists in Chicago. According to About.com, she says her previous work has taken the form of “visual novels.” Her most recent was called The Three Incestuous Sisters, took fourteen years to complete, and had a print run of under twenty copies. The Time Traveler’s Wife however is her first work that stands solely on the strength of narrative prose. And what prose it is. She consistently avoids falling prey to sappy sentimentality and florid descriptions. She tells her story with a reporter’s eye, objectively yet not without sympathy. She walks a fine line with the grace of a veteran tightrope walker.
A word of warning to the casual reader of science fiction: If you’re looking for a traditional time-travel adventure, go elsewhere. Here you’ll not find Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol nor the clever intricacies of Heinlein’s All You Zombies.
A Plea to those who don’t read science fiction and fantasy: Put aside John Grisham long enough to read this novel. If E. L. Doctorow, A. S. Byatt, or Walker Percy is your cup of tea, The Time Traveler’s Wife offers plenty of nourishment for your literary soul.
Author Audrey Niffenegger owes nothing to Vonnegut except a basic premise. The rest is hers alone.
- Amazon readers rating: from 2,462 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Novels in Pictures:
Movies from books:
- The Time Traveler's Wife (2009)
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- Official website for Audrey Niffenegger
- BookSlut interview with Audrey Niffenegger
- MostlyFiction.com review of Her Fearful Symmetry
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About the Author:
Audrey Niffenegger grew up in middle-class Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. Her father is a civil engineer and her mother was a barrister's assistant.
A visual artist, she is also professor at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, where she teaches writing, letterpress printing and fine-edition book production. She makes visual novels, paintings, prints and photographs, which are shown at the Printworks Gallery in Chicago.