A Love to Defy the Rules of Time
(A Book Review of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife)
Right from the beginning of Audrey Niffeneger’s famed debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, the reader is already thrown terrifically off-balanced. Here’s a scenario of a man meets woman that’s anything but, and a love story, while on the surface conquers the test of time, challenges its tenets as well.
On the day that Henry DeTamble, a librarian, meets Clare Anne Abshire, an art student, in a Chicago library it seems she had already known him all his life, while he doesn’t even know who she is. As the reader gets to know bit by bit, Henry is afflicted with Chrono-Displacement Disorder, a genetic anomaly that makes him involuntarily displaced in time triggered mostly during moments of emotional stress. That’s how Clare had met him; by means of an older future version of Henry who traveled back in time to meet the child Clare where in her past they first fell in love, while in the present time of their meeting all of this is just waiting to unfold. Wait, am I talking sense? Well, talk about being off-balanced, for that’s just how I felt reading the first chapter of the book, yet as I continued on, shuffling through different timelines in the life of this couple, things begin to click in and become comprehensible, and I was left impressed by Niffenegger’s unusual love story and her atypical take on time traveling.
I think this is one of those books that have something for everyone — it quite engages the reader on multiple levels. For the most part, some easily relate to the circumstances of Henry and Clare’s relationship; that though Henry is beset by a strange medical condition, the daily ordeals and simple joys they undergo as a couple, and in their eventual married life, remains grounded in the same experiences when two people are madly in love with each other. For sci-fi buffs, Niffenegger’s rendition of one of the genre’s most often used concept is refreshing, taking time traveling on its head and portraying it as something that’s uncontrollable, a threat to constancy and a blight.
I fairly marveled at Niffenegger’s clever fusion of this sci-fi element into a heartfelt love story to underscore themes such as waiting, domesticity, relationship gender roles, fate and free will, as well as brushing on philosophical questions of meaning and purpose. By figuring out time traveling into the tale of Henry and Clare she also gives us a peek into that window of a wild fantasy some of us seem to share: what is it like to go into the past and even the childhood of our significant other? It gives more than an adequate meaning of what’s like to be a part of someone’s life.
More than anything else, the novel’s quaint structure, through Niffenegger’s innovative space time continuum interplay, sure does give that sense of displacement to the reader that Henry must have felt as it hurls and jumps from certain events in the lives of her two major protagonists slogging through different chronologies. Yet for once didn’t I felt lost for the author excellently laid out the logic of her premise clearly in the beginning pages of the book (though frankly it was a slow start for me as I take it all in), locks her narrative, and once you get settled in the rest ambles by smoothly — at least for me. The effect is a truly moving novel that even when the execution falls short its raw imaginative and intellectual power carries the day.
The only problem that I have with this book is that it’s too long and it could’ve do some good to the narrative if it was cut in some parts, especially in its middle section that kind of plateaued where some of the chapters served as fillers and doesn’t even bear a connection to and figure in whatsoever into what will eventually happen in the novel’s climax. I also noted that it was mostly on this section that some of its melodramatic stuff comes on in excess, with copiously inconsequential sex scenes and where the line of relationship of the novel’s key players goes overboard it made me roll my eyes as I think Niffenegger’s brewing a storm in a small tea cup, adding complication in the plot that in the first place it can do without.
Despite occasionally verging on the histrionic, the characters are well-drawn, with complicated family history and close (sometimes too much for comfort — oh, there I’m at again) friendships. The dialogue is witty but not unnatural (I particularly like some of the parts from Clare’s perspective) which balances the suspension of disbelief the reader needs to accept its sci-fi premise.