The Time Traveler’s Wife: A haunting and bittersweet love story

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger speculative fiction book reviewsThe Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I’m certainly late to the party when it comes to reading Audrey Niffenegger‘s first novel — I remember it making a huge splash when it was first published, and was astonished to flip open my copy and realise it was released back in 2003. Time certainly flies, which is an apt idiom to recall when reading The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Clare meets Henry for the first time when she’s six and he’s thirty-six. Henry meets Clare for the first time when he’s twenty-eight and she’s twenty. This is made possible by the fact Henry is born with a rare genetic disease that sporadically pulls him into his past or future, often depositing him in strange locations where he’s left stranded and alone.

What makes matters worse is that time travelling doesn’t allow him to take anything with him — including all the clothes on his back. His childhood is spent learning how to pick locks and steal clothing and evade capture: tricks he’s taught by his future self. There are certain patterns to his condition: he travels in times of great stress, and usually ends up at places where significant events occurred.

One such event was the meeting of his future wife at her childhood home.

Using this premise as the basis for her love story, Niffenegger explores Henry and Clare’s attempt to live a life together: experiencing events out of sync, finding each other in past, present and future, and struggling to keep track of where they’ve been and where they’re going.

I have to admit I enjoyed the science-fiction element of the story more than the romance (though The Time Traveler’s Wife itself is usually categorized as a romance). Told in first-person narrative from the alternating points-of-view of both Henry and Clare, Niffenegger rises to the challenge of keeping the time-travelling shenanigans coherent, working within the parameters of the genre’s Golden Rule: that the past cannot be changed. As such, Clare and Henry experience the same events at vastly different periods of their lives, but far from being repetitive, there are several rewarding sequences in which the confusion of one character is eventually explained by the other’s contextual understanding of the situation.

But knowing that this story heavily inspired the relationship between the Doctor and River Song on Doctor Who, I ended up having the same problem with Henry/Clare as I did with the Doctor/River: that it seems they fall in love partially because they have foreknowledge of their future together, as opposed to any organic attraction between the two of them. Niffenegger also toes a fine line when it comes to Henry’s visits to Clare as a child: there’s a risk this could come across as child grooming to some readers, though the realities of time travelling serves to muddy the waters.

The Time Traveler’s Wife itself races along at a brisk pace, and though there are a few chapters that feel like padding (did we really need to know all the details of a pool game that Henry and Clare play together?) the story is at its best when it’s exploring Henry’s predicament and the ways in which he copes with it. Meeting his past/future selves, trying to orientate himself every time he moves through time, deciding which secrets to keep and which ones to share — Niffenegger makes the most of her winning premise when it comes to Henry’s struggles.

While it lasts, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a book that’s difficult to put down. Despite the complex subject matter, it never feels convoluted or incomprehensible, and though Henry’s condition causes pain and suffering and heartache, it’s also a source of wonder and delight. You certainly wouldn’t want to go through what he does — but reading about it is certainly a rewarding experience.

Published in 2003. Audrey Niffenegger’s innovative debut, The Time Traveler’s Wife, is the story of Clare, a beautiful art student, and Henry, an adventuresome librarian, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. Impossible but true, because Henry is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder: periodically his genetic clock resets and he finds himself misplaced in time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity in his life, past and future. His disappearances are spontaneous, his experiences unpredictable, alternately harrowing and amusing. The Time Traveler’s Wife depicts the effects of time travel on Henry and Clare’s marriage and their passionate love for each other as the story unfolds from both points of view. Clare and Henry attempt to live normal lives, pursuing familiar goals–steady jobs, good friends, children of their own. All of this is threatened by something they can neither prevent nor control, making their story intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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2 comments

  1. Stuart Starosta /

    Excellent review, Rebecca! I too have flagged this on my TBR list as a mainstream time travel romance with an intriguing premise. Has the author written anything since that could be considered SFF?

    • Rebecca /

      She has written “Her Fearful Symmetry” which kind of fits the bill, at least in its inclusion of ghosts – though it’s a very different type of book than “The Time Traveller’s Wife”, and not one that I enjoyed as much. She’s also done some graphic novels – though I haven’t read them, I’m under the impression they have a magic-realism bent.

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