The Time Traveler’s Wife
Harvest Books: 2003
546 pp. $14.00
Audrey Niffenegger published her first traditional novel in 2003. Her book, The Time Traveler’s Wife, has earned wide acclaim: it’s a New York Times bestseller, one of People’s top ten books of 2003, and a book club pick on the Today Show.
Her book is quite an accomplishment for a person who has, until now, produced visual novels that would run a mere ten copies. Niffenegger is a professor at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts' MFA program. She teaches for the Interdisciplinary Arts department, mostly focusing on classes dealing with making books from scrap.
There have been some interesting side stories to the novel’s success: Niffenegger dyed her hair red (the same as her female lead’s) in celebration of her novel's completion, and famous couple Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt have reportedly optioned film rights—though it’s yet to be seen if the pair will play the destined couple in Niffenegger’s book.
The Story Without Spoilers:
Henry DeTamble is the time traveler. We know him at many phases of his life, though not necessarily chronologically. Henry suffers from a disorder that causes him to travel through time involuntarily.
Clare Abshire is the wife. We know her through many phases of her life and most of the time we are introduced to her chronologically: as child, student, artist, and wife.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is set in Chicago over a period of many years with a smattering of punk and art references. We meet the characters through an alternating first-person narration of the book. Clare always knew that she’d be with Henry; she met the adult Henry while she was only a child. Henry didn’t meet Clare until he was older. She went to his library looking for a librarian, when someone suggested she speak with him. When she realized the librarian she was speaking to was the Henry she knew as a child she excitedly greeted him, leaving him to wonder how he knew the young woman.
There are interesting dynamics created by the unusual plot. For example, when Clare first meets Henry he had knowledge of their future life but she knew nothing of it. However, when Clare and Henry meet in real time she knows about his future even though he hasn’t lived that phase of his life yet. There are also many conflicts to resolve along the way: dating, meeting friends, or visiting family is always a bit suspenseful. Once married, the pair is unsure if they will be able to have children or not. They also try to resolve how Henry came to be afflicted with this disorder. While trying to discover the root cause they work with doctors to see if there is a cure. The biggest mystery for the reader is to see if Henry will be able to live a normal life or if something horrible happens to him while he is traveling through time.
Analysis of the work:
This is an interesting work in many ways. From a literary perspective, Niffenegger was able to use many interesting devices due to the unique nature of her story. Because of Henry’s frequent time traveling, the story is not told in chronological order. This foreshadowing is natural, so the audience learns bits about the lives of the characters from Henry’s time travel. The reader learns facts before Clare in some cases and before Henry in others. It allows the reader to be a detective and piece together information that would not be available if the story was told strictly from a real time-chronological order.
The shared first-person narrative allows the reader to get to know both Clare and Henry in a way that a single first-person narrative or a third-person narrative could not accomplish. This narrative also gives the reader a better understanding of the relationship between the pair. This book is a love story, and quite romantic, but it is also much more realistic because the reader does see the relationship from both party’s perspectives. Clare does like to be alone sometimes and Henry can be irritating and rude, but it’s okay because the characters seem entirely realistic, and real people do have traits that aren’t perfect.
The science behind the story is nearly impossible to accept, but the story is so compelling that once the reader accepts the premise the storytelling truly carries the novel. Niffenegger’s choice of location also tempers the far-fetched science. Having lived in Chicago, she has a thorough understanding of the environment. She places this very fanciful story in a very concrete place. It allows the reader to have something real to ground the story in.
Finally, Niffenegger also makes philosophy interesting to the average reader. Her story is a metaphor dealing with metaphysical issues of identity, time, fate, and destiny. Is one really the same person over completely different periods of time? Does time run in only one direction? Is there such a thing as predestination or free will? This book will be interesting to those who like these kinds of questions as well as those who just want to read a good story.