12/18/07

The Time Traveler's Wife — Review by Carole

Notes:

The movie is currently in production and will start Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams as Henry and Clare. It should be in theaters in 2008.

Chris and I both have a fondness for time travel stories, and we will talk more about this topic in 2008. What are your favorite time travel stories?

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I read The Time Traveler's Wife two years ago, and I was fascinated by the premise of time travel being an involuntary action due to a genetic disorder. I found re-reading the book equally engaging--so many events take place in the book that I had not remembered. Because of Niffenegger's non-linear (very appropriate — given the nature of the story) way of presenting the narrative, I had little recollection of what happens when.

The idea of time travelling to different times in your own life — rewinding of the proverbial videotape — makes sense to me, but Henry doesn't just do that. He travels to places in time he hasn't been before — that I don't understand. How it is that he actually first comes to the Meadow and meets Clare when he hasn't ever been there before? I'm willing to believe that it is such a part of his future or destiny that he is drawn to that place, even if he doesn't know why. But he also ends up in places like Muncie, Indiana (1973) and we don't know if that is a new place for him or one he has visited. I prefer to think that all of the places he travels to are places he has visited before except for the Meadow.

The concept of destiny and Henry not being able to change anything in the past because it is has already happened is different from many time-traveling stories. People travel back in time, right some wrong, and effect a positive change in the future (unless they end up meeting themselves and then they rip a hole in the space/time continuum and there are world-ending consequences, but I digress). Niffenegger turns that more-or-less-typical premise on its ear by having Henry meet himself at different ages, in different places, in different times. The idea that there can be multiple Henrys running around is a bizarre concept, and the author illustrates that with some key scenes. I don't think I'll easily forget the scene in which Henry's father walks in on Henry and Henry engaged in a compromising situation.

The various Henrys help each other out, and I found that notion comforting. Older Henry teaches a new-to-time-travel Henry the things he needs to know to survive. An older Henry steps in to get married when the present Henry can't stay. A younger Henry makes love to Clare so she can become pregnant with Alba when the present Henry has had a vasectomy. There seems to be no jealousy or resentment of these Henrys to one another, and I guess that's because they are all the same person. It seems to make Henry feel less lonely as he goes through his solitary time travel.

Throughout the story I felt the weight that Henry carried — he knows things he can't share with people. He has to decide when he can or when he has to. By sharing anything, such as the list of dates with Clare, he alters her life, and his, forever. Which brings me to Clare.

Clare's is a lifetime spent waiting. From the time she is six years old until she is a very old woman, she is waiting for Henry. I find that to be a sad life. Despite the fact that she has known him her whole life, their time together seems very brief. When Henry tells her not to be sad, he will see her again after he dies, I feel like she spends the rest of her life waiting for that moment. And that is a lot of waiting. Should he have done that?

Clare is Henry's constant in life, and she bears it all with a fair amount of grace, I think. I could see where it might become too overwhelming, but she seems well suited to the waiting. The images of her art expressed a great deal of Clare, and I found her use of bird imagery, particularly dark, sinister birds, telling. She doesn't speak the words, but she lived with a great deal of fear of the future, which to me would make the waiting difficult to endure.

Henry and Clare's love story rang true for me — I believed their feelings for one another, and I did find Clare's waiting for Henry to be very like the story of Odysseus, just as Niffenegger quotes at the end. I found the quotes that the author uses between sections to be very provocative, and I think I want to find this story of Byatt's Possession — it seems to have inspired Niffenegger. Does anyone know it?

I also found it interesting that both Clare and Henry assert that they don't or no longer believe in God, yet they find themselves praying for things throughout the book. I think that Clare's faith actually is more important to her than even she realizes. I particularly like the prayer that Henry utters on his wedding day:
"Oh God, let today be a normal day. Let me normally befuddled, normally nervous; get me to the church on time, in time. Let me not startle anyone, especially myself. Let me get through our wedding day as best I can, with no special effects. Deliver Clare from unpleasant scenes. Amen."

I think that actually is version of what Henry generally prays for with his life for Clare.

The name of the second section of the book, "A Drop of Blood in a Bowl of Milk," intrigued me. I wondered why she chose to name the entire section this — she uses the phrase to refer to Clare's blush when they discuss their plans to make love for the first time. Many scenes in this book are bloody images from Clare's miscarriages to Henry's injuries. Why this name for this section?

I found the cast of characters in Henry's life very compelling. His parent's love story and their subsequent tragedy shapes Henry's life from an early age. You can't help but wonder how things would have been without the loss of his mother and his father's withdrawal from life. Except for his father, I was continually amazed at how the people who come to know the reason for Henry's quirky behavior are generally okay with it. They don't seem to be as freaked out as I think people might actually be if someone they knew could just appear and disappear. But I found it comforting that Henry had so many people who loved him.

Characters like Ingrid, Gomez, Ben, and Charisse all have their own issues, but they came across as real people (except of course that they ALL have extremely interesting lives and jobs — no one is the story just sells shoes or works for an insurance company).

I found the touches of humor, though subtle, throughout the book a much appreciated element; it's a nice foil to the many, many sad elements in the tale. I think the poignant scenes, such as those with Henry and his daughter, are contrasted by his light hearted moments.

I could go on and on, but I would love to hear what others have to say. Did the time-travelling premise in this book work for you? Did you find it distracting to keep track of when things were happening and how old the characters were respectively in any given scene? Does anyone have a good explanation for why it is essential to the story that Henry and Clare do not meet again for two years — a break between her childhood and her adult life? Why that break in time? Did you find their lives compelling? Was this first and foremost a time-traveling story or a love story?

5 comments:

Chris said...

The author's Web site is under major construction, but I'm curious about what else she has written. The painting on her home page at www.audreyniffenegger.com has kinda freaked me out....

brooklynboy3 said...

Brilliant book.

I loved it. Actually, did not read it but listened to it on CD twice. Haunting.

I will not forget.

Howard Adamsky

Chris said...

Howard, do you read a lot on CD? Do you found it has impacted your book reading?

Howard Adamsky said...

Hi Chris: I have fond that listening to boos on CD does not impact my reading. I tend to listen on longer drives when I can't really read anyway.

Chris said...

What's your favorite audio book?