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Sunday, August 03, 2008

cover of The Time Traveller's Wife

This is the strange, out-of-order love story of Henry and Clare. Henry is a "Chrono-Displaced-Person": he has a genetic disease that causes him to travel through time-- but he can't control it, so he is constantly ending up in unlikely or inconvenient places, naked (because nothing goes with him when he travels), and having to fend for himself or rely on the few people who know his secret, if he's in a place and time when they know about it and can help. For Clare, the first time they meet is when she is a girl and Henry is an older man who is already married to her. For Henry, the first time they meet is when he is a young man working in a library-- but Clare is so excited to finally meet him in real time, and already knows the future self that he has not yet become.

There is a brilliance to Niffenegger's concept-- this is an incredibly unique story, and it's well told; every section is labeled with the age(s) of Henry and/or Clare, which helps to alleviate some of the confusion. Henry is often hearing things from people in the past that suddenly make sense of things they've said to him before (in his past, their future); and to some extent, the reader gets to experience a bit of this as well: getting parts of the story now, through Clare's eyes, and part of it later, through Henry's perspective. However, there is a disturbing aspect to the morals and ethics of this story that bothered me; the narrative touches on it at moments, but then dismisses it too easily for my taste. An older Henry corrupts his younger self on one of his first times travelling-- teaching him how to steal wallets and unlock doors so that he will be able to fend for himself when he's on his own in time. The older Henry feels a twinge of guilt about this, but for him it is a necessity-- and, what's more, it has already happened in his past, so he can't change it (this comes up more frequently-- causation in Henry's life is quite tangled because of the things that have already happened, and he explains at various points to others and even himself that he can't change anything when he's in the past). Likewise, the older Henry worries that he is perverting Clare through his relationship with her as a girl and then a young woman-- even though he is careful, of course the very fact of Henry being there changes her and makes her different from all the other girls. I was also troubled by the idea of cheating on one's spouse with a future or past version of them.

For all the brilliance of the idea of this book, I found myself slogging through it just to finish, and I finally figured out why when I met Henry and Clare's daughter Alba. She is a delightful character; afflicted with the same time-travelling disease that Henry has (although perhaps with a little more control), but clever and smart and-- perhaps what is strikingly different from the other characters-- happy and well-adjusted. Alba is the first character in the book that I actually liked. The other characters, even Henry and Clare, are so unhappy and messed up-- they have sad childhoods (in many of his time trips, Henry revisits the scene of his mother's death over and over) and mixed up relationships with their friends. There is a sadness about Clare, because she is nearly always waiting for Henry-- waiting for him to come visit out her out of time, waiting for him to come back from his time trips. And the murky ethics of it all is disturbing to me-- but there is none of that in Alba. For Henry, his disease is a curse that warps his life and eventually destroys him; for Alba, in a way it is a blessing because of the moments out of time that she gets to spend with her father.

This book was recommended to me by several people (I don't remember who all); my first hint that it might not be the kind of book I first thought was when I looked for it in a bookstore and it wasn't in the Science Fiction section.

Title:The Time Traveller's Wife
Author:Audrey Niffenegger
Date published:2003
Number of pages:560
Notes:recommended by several people; gift from Jane


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