The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

I recently reread this book, and I was planning to wait on writing about it until I could see the movie, but the people I see movies with are either like “Are you nuts?  I saw it the first instant it came out!” or else “I can’t watch it!  The book is too precious to me!” or else (more rarely) “Looks mushy.  Let’s go see (500) Days of Summer instead.”  (And we did.  And it was excellent.  But I am still curious about The Time Traveler’s Wife film, because I loved the book so much.)

The Time Traveler’s Wife I feel like is famous enough that I don’t need to give a synopsis?  But here one is anyway: Henry is a time-traveler.  In times of stress or just for no reason at all, he vanishes from his own time and goes somewhere else – could be his childhood, his wife’s childhood, his future, or (we don’t see much of this but) any time at all.  He meets his wife Clare when he is 28 and she is 20, but Clare has known him since she was six years old.  So this is the story of their relationship from start to finish.

I like so many things about this book!  I love it that Clare and Henry start out by having a completely different story of their relationship – to Clare it’s something she has always known (destiny!), and to Henry it’s a complete, unexpected, amazing surprise.  Then gradually, as he spends more and more time with Clare at all different ages, her version of the story becomes the true one for him, too.  I also like it how they create each other – Clare has grown up with Henry, and (like it or not!) he shapes her into who she is; and when she meets him “in real life”, he is able to see himself the way she sees him, and try to become that person.  There is a scene where Clare goes dancing with Henry, not long after they meet in real time, and runs into an ex of his in the bathroom, who says all sorts of unpleasant things about him.  Shaken, she wanders back out and runs into a version of Henry from farther on, a Henry she recognizes and knows.  This Henry says of his past self:

“When I met you, I was wrecked, blasted, and damned, and I am slowly pulling myself together because I can see that you are a real human being and I would like to be one too.  And I have been trying to do it without you noticing, because I still haven’t figured out that all pretense is useless between us.  But it’s a long way from the me you’re dealing with here in 1991 to me, talking to you right now from 1996.  You have to work at me; I can’t get there alone.”

I love that.  They invent each other!  It’s brilliant!  Slightly weird, but brilliant.

I like the way the book is structured, in little slices of their lives, the present and past and future.  There are brief moments between them that are really lovely, and not nearly enough of the gentle, quiet times together that Henry says he loves the best.  Not enough, but that’s why it works – because, of course, it never is enough (for them), and Henry always vanishes, and leaves Clare behind waiting (like Penelope, she says) (“yet they say all the yarn she spun in Ulysses’s absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths”).  The book has its fair share of unhappiness, and you can see it curving in that direction as Clare and Henry carry on with their relationship.

Also, oh!  Here’s something else that is good!  Although the book is about a relationship, and in that sense it’s a romance, it doesn’t do any of the romantic thing of skirting around physical stuff.  I’m not talking about just sex, though there is sex, but about the physicality of Henry’s condition, their difficulties in having a baby, and – er, well, other depressing things that happen later on in the book, which I won’t spoil for you even though it made me really sad.  Henry’s condition brings Clare and Henry together, but it also makes them suffer terribly.  So the fact that his condition has brought them together feels less like destiny and more like the law of averages – it can’t be all bad, but there is a lot of permanent, bad stuff too.

I wish I could excerpt all the scenes I love best, but it would take too long.  I love it when Clare runs into a future version of Henry when she’s out dancing, and when Clare finds her mum’s poem, and when Henry meets Alba for the first time, and the very last scene of the whole book.  I think those are my favorite ones.

  • I loved The Time Traveller’s Wife and was worried about what they would do to it on screen, but I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t perfect, but all the emotion is still there. Some of the depth is lost, but I don’t think you can do much about that without making the film 20 hours long. I think you should go and watch it – hopefully you won’t be disappointed.

  • I’m still on a I-can’t-watch-it-the-book’s-too-precious-to-me-stage, but I’ve heard praise from people who love it, so maybe.

    The last scene is so perfect. Actually, all the ones you mentioned are great.

  • The last scene is great, I agree!

  • I loved the book but found the film to be disappointing. Let us know what you think!

  • Lovely review. I thought the book was great. I do want to see the film, soon as I can!

  • Jackie – I want to see it! But none of my friends will go with me because they’re all in one of the three aforementioned camps. I am going to try and talk my sister into it; I am planning a multi-tiered strategy of persuasion that appeals to her sisterly love for me, her fondness for films in general, and her trust in my claims about what people (this means you & other book bloggers & the positive reviews from Rotten Tomatoes). I think this will be totally successful.

    Nymeth – You know, as much as I love this book (A LOT), I think I would be able to watch it without too much cranky comparison. This may be self-delusion on my part, though – I may just as easily end up stomping out in a huff because they left out a favored scene. 😛

    rhapsody – It gives me the chills every time!

    Tara – I have just heard the most mixed reviews ever about this film. I think I’ll enjoy it at least part of the time, the way I do the Harry Potter movies – they aren’t the best films, but when they get a scene right, they get it brilliantly right. So that’s my minimum expectation. 🙂

    Jeane – Thanks! This is one of those books like Jane Eyre that just sucks me in and doesn’t let go until the last page.