Audrey Niffenegger – “The Time Traveler’s Wife”

18 Sep

GENRE: Contemporary fiction
PUBLISHED: MacAdam/Cage Publishing; 2003

The German back cover (my translation):
“Rarely it was written about love so stirring, so original/novel/witty. A book about duration’s beauty and longing’s astonishment. A journey through happiness.”

This doesn’t tell you much about the story (even if read in German) except that it’s probably a love story and – looking at the title – that time travel is involved. Here’s a bit more:

The Time Traveler’s Wife tells the story of the love between Henry and his wife Clare. Henry has the ability to travel in time. He can’t control it in any way (place/time) and he always travels naked – no clothes, no money, not anything in the time he travels to. So maybe time travel is not that much fun.

The novel encompasses Henry’s and Clare’s whole life: their first meeting, their life together, their end. It is told by both Henry and Clare in first person and it’s written in the form of vignettes. Each of these vignettes is headed by either Henry’s or Clare’s name, a date and the age of Henry and Clare at the time of the vignette. This is necessary, because Niffenegger choose to tell their story not chronological: it starts with 1991, then 1968, 1988 and 1968, 1977, 2000, …

At first, I had trouble getting into the story. This wasn’t because of constant change of time; it was because with each new “jump” I again started to think about the Niffenegger’s logic behind it: Henry goes back in time but he can’t change a thing there because the past already happened. But for him to be able to go back in time, everything must happen at the same time because how could a 36-year-old Henry exist in the year 1977 otherwise (the Henry of 1977 is 14)? And if that is so, why can’t he influence things? Or am I just too dense and missing things? Anyway, it kept distracting me for quite some time.

Right after I finished it, I thought it was a rather good read despite my thinking “when does something happen?” But then, the more I thought about the novel, the worse my opinion of it got. I think this is in part because I get easily influenced if I like the way an author writes or the way the story is structured. As it was in this case. Niffenegger seldom dropped the ball in regard to the dates and I admired that. I only remember one time travel date where there was no corresponding date in the “real” time. Incidentally, that was the one where I thought this could go somewhere.

But the thing is, told in a chronological way, The Time Traveler’s Wife is just a story of boy-meets-girl. Granted, there is an unusual twist (the time-travel thing), but this twist doesn’t influence Henry and Clare in any major way (especially notable: their wish to have a child). The novel recounts their life: Clare keeps waiting, Henry keeps travelling, and they just have to be together and that’s enough for them (and the story).

But not for the reader. I’m reminded a bit of Margaret Atwood’s short story Happy Endings which illustrates the notion that “only trouble is interesting”. The only trouble (more or less) Henry and Clare have is his uncontrollable time travelling. It’s annoying, sure, but without it influencing anything it’s just a gimmick and The Time Traveler’s Wife is just a rather mushy love story about two lovers fated to be together (and that – it’s just a romance! – is not something Henry or Clare or Niffenegger would like to hear, I think, because they are such intellectuals).

The romance?

Well, you have your characters from Romance Central: the bad boy who sleeps with everything in sight (Henry) until he meets the love of his life in the form of a Mary Sue virgin (Clare). It’s even better than your ordinary romance: they meet 2 times for the first time: Henry travelling back in time when Clare is 6 (Clare’s first time); their meeting in “real” time when Clare is 20 and Henry 28 (Henry’s first time).

But despite that, the romance didn’t work for me. There are two chances (because they meet two times for the first time) where it could be shown why these two fall in love with each other. Neither delivered. With the first time, I get a slightly creepy feeling: Clare loves Henry because he was around so often during her childhood and teenage years. That’s not fated or meant to be, that’s manipulated. And the second time? It’s shown that they lust after each other (oh yes), and then? It’s like they are together because Clare loved Henry for such a long time at that time and says so and that they will be married (the 28-year-old Henry doesn’t know about Clare), and so because of their future together I have to believe that these two love each other when I’m not shown how this happens? Again, I’m left with some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

A lot of romance novels do the “showing-how-they-fall-in-love” better.

Would I recommend this novel? Maybe (depends on the person asking)

Would I read this novel again? No.

Grade: 2,5 / 5


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