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Friday, March 28, 2014

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Book Review: The Time Traveler's Wife

Movie aside, this is a fantastic novel.

On October 26, 1991, twenty-year-old Claire Abshire enters the Newport Library in Chicago looking for a book on the Kelmscott Press Chaucer. She’s doing some research for a paper when she promptly comes face to face with a young, handsome Henry DeTamble, the man she’s been in love with for arguably her whole life. He’s younger than she’s ever seen him, and she knows this is his first time meeting her.

Though this is the beginning of the novel, it’s not exactly the beginning of the story. Time travel is hard to do right. There are so many possibilities, and I think Niffenegger does a service to this particular story by limiting those possibilities, focusing instead on the characters (who just so happen to deal with a bit of time travel).

Though the nature of the genre already suggests an unorthodox narrative, I promise that this book is unlike any other time travel book you have read. Here’s why:

1. Henry cannot decide when he time travels or where he goes.
There is no time machine. He goes without warning for hours or days at a time. When he comes back, he might’ve only been gone for minutes. And he can’t bring anything or anyone with him: no clothes, no money, not even cavity fillings. He doesn’t like to drive for fear that his moving vehicle will continue on without him, or worse, that he might eventually have to return in the middle of the freeway. In a way, he lives in constant fear that he will end up somewhere he can’t get out of.

2. Henry only time travels to places he’s been to before.

…or places that are relevant to his life: his parent’s house, Claire’s family house, the library, his old apartment in Chicago. You won't find him getting chased by prehistoric dinosaurs. Sometimes he pops in on himself from just months later, or morbidly, he is forced to revisit the scene of his mother’s death more times than he’d like. When Henry time travels, he often has to become a more desperate version of himself, stealing clothing, shoes, and food (naturally, time travel makes you hungry). He struggles to find meaning in these seemingly random "visits," but more often than not, his main objective is to stay alive and out of trouble until he can go back to his normal life.

3. Henry cannot change anything.

This is probably what sets the novel aside most from other time travel novels. Henry’s time travel-ness is a genetic disorder. It directly affects him and his loved ones, not the world around him. If something has already happened in his present, it will happen again when he revisits the past. So you don’t have to stress about whether or not he is making the right decisions or messing with fate. There are no alternate realities. While this poses an interesting question about the nature of the characters’ free will, it also comforts the reader. We already know that Claire and Henry fall in love and get married. The title tells us that. So the story becomes something different than a traditional boy meets girl. Therein lie the complexities of their relationship.

Their love story is imperfect and unrefined. Niffenegger does not spare us the dirty details. Future Henry used to visit Claire when she was a child, but for him, that hasn’t happened yet. When she meets his present self, she has to start over. Not only has he never met her before, but also he isn’t quite the same calm, mature man from her childhood. In fact, he is dating some other girl and has quite a scandalous reputation. But the way they deal with the knowledge of their fate is somehow unforced, thoughtful, and not the least bit corny. And while it's as unconventional as love stories go, we can't help but get the feeling that their struggles aren't far from the struggles of an ordinary couple.

4. The novel is delivered in various scenes, jumping between narrators (and also in time). 

For instance, most all of Claire’s childhood is told from Henry’s perspective. But in this vain, there is no over explaining or dwelling on issues. All the information we receive, we arrive to "in scene" with the characters. And because we only greet them through these small snippets in their lives, we often catch them in uncompromising situations that spectacularly blur the lines between right and wrong. So as readers, we have have a responsibility to piece together these moments in order to understand the bigger picture. And we are privileged to get to see the moments that ultimately define who these people are--moments that are ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.

Henry is a man with a genetic disease, and while this disease brings him together with the woman he loves, it also complicates a lot of things in his life, making it hard for him to exist as a normal human being. What I like about the novel is that there is no greater purpose to save the world or go back in time to stop Hitler. The story is confined to the world in which the characters exist. And theirs isn’t the only relationship worth mentioning. In fact, there is an array of complex relationships throughout the novel that are defined by other the interesting characters who inhabit them, including (but not limited to):

  • a couple of unrequited lovers
  • an alcoholic violinist
  • a tough-love Korean landlady
  • an untrusting yet unfaltering geneticist
  • a society of punk-loving anti-establishment wannabe anarchists
  • a suicidal mother with a wonderful garden
  • and a bunch of confused librarians.
These characters give the story it’s authenticity, and with her very first novel, Niffenegger paints a world with such capacity for human understanding, it becomes hard to believe genetic time travel isn't actually possible. And for a book with so much emphasis on unbelievable circumstances, the characters often come face to face with some pretty gruesome realities.

One thing that might be an obvious conflict in the romance (and appears to be so in the movie) is the fact that Henry constantly leaves Claire for an undetermined amount of time. But what I like about this novel is that Niffenegger gets this out of the way early on. Claire knows what she’s signed up for. Henry can’t control his curse, and she doesn’t continue nagging him about it. And in that way, I think the characters are able to delve into more complex emotional territory.

This book is so masterfully crafted and well-written, I just have to say that I have no desire to see the movie. Apart from it’s 37% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and hearing my friends’ proclamations that it doesn’t hold up to the book, I’ve seen the trailer, and it seems to me that the movie is exactly what the book isn’t—a tragic love story where a couple constantly revisits the same obvious struggle. I didn’t see any of the other lovable side characters in the trailer either, and I’m grateful to my friend Kaley for insisting that the book is so much better. What I like about the book is that the characters actually evolve, even though one variable stays the same.

The Time Traveler's Wife isn't a story about two people falling in love. Anyone can fall in love. It's about two people who decide to accept each other and their fates, choosing to grow together. For Henry and Claire's love develops over an astounding stretch of time, in piecing together moments of their unconventional lives, which are filled with remarkable adventures, harsh realities, and intensely moving moments.

So if you have the choice, read the book. Always.

Title: The Time Traveler's Wife

Author: Audrey Niffenegger

Genre: Fiction, Sci-Fi

Recommendation: Yes

Best Reader Audience: All Adults (even boys!)

Final Rating: Five out of Five Bumblebees

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