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7th March
2009
written by Steph
If I could travel back in time, would I read this book again?

If I could travel back in time, would I read this book again?

Guys, I think I’m becoming cynical (cue loud rounds of: “BECOMING?!?!”).  This is the most recent book in a string of books in which I have utterly failed to empathize and connect with the characters and have just wanted to wring their necks and point out how stupid/selfish/in need of therapy/terrible they are… and this is supposed to be a Romance.  Not good. To be fair, I didn’t loathe The Time Traveler’s Wife.  There were moments I thought were quite interesting, or that I admit touched my rock-hard heart, and I thought the central conceit of the time traveling and the narrative possibilities it opened up was very cool and well done, but in the end things didn’t completely add up for me, and there were more things that I disliked about it than liked.  Which means that this is going to be a really fun review to write!  😉  Seriously though, my trajectory for reading this novel was mild intrigue but general indifference for the first 200 pages, then acute and fierce hatred for the next 250 pages, and then slight horror at myself for the remainder when I found myself somewhat moved and touched by the events that tie up the novel even though it had been obvious that this was the natural course the novel would take for quite some while (mostly because Niffenegger states outright that this is where things are heading). But before I get too far ahead of myself in dissecting the novel, I’ll let the 12 of you who haven’t read it know what it’s loosely about.  The Time Traveler’s Wife essentially traces the life of Clare Abshire & Henry DeTamble, as they meet, fall in love, get married, and live their lives together.  The only thing is, Henry has a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel during moments of extreme stress, so Clare and Henry actually first meet when Clare is 6 and Henry is 38.  While Clare’s life moves forward linearly, suffice it to say that Henry’s kind of doesn’t.  So it’s a love story with a twist.  And really, that’s all I can say without giving away specific plot details that it would probably be best you discovered on your own if you intend to read this book.  And if you do intend to read this book, you should probably stop reading here because after the jump, I am going to get into the specifics of what did and didn’t work for me in this book. First the good:  Niffenegger has a really convoluted plot structure that can throw the reader for a loop, but she manages to keep things straight not just for herself in terms of time, but also for the reader, which is no small feat.  Clearly she’s thought about the details and has the internal logic of her story figured out, so that even though things are confusing at first (such that Henry can visit with himself and literally be in two places at once… or one place twice), it eventually does all kind of make sense.  That being said, if I think about the time travel too hard, it makes my head hurt… And, that’s about all I’ve got re: the good.  Seriously.  Sure there were moments that were touching throughout the book, but guys, the book is REALLY long (500+ pages), and the good moments are few and far between, especially given how many pages there were in this sucker.  The writing was middling to good at times, but was generally unremarkable.  I honestly didn’t feel that this book came across as very literary; something about it struck me as desperately trying to be artful, but it was really artless and kind of disposable.  Could this be because most of what Niffenegger writes about are the minutia of daily life that are ultimately not important in real life, and certainly not in a novel, and especially if it means that you sacrifice developing your characters at the expense of cataloging what they ate when they went out for sushi.  It’s hard to make preparing coffee and eating out at Thai restaurants and Violent Femmes concerts poetic, you know?  Ultimately I felt as though the book was overly descriptive, and overly descriptive of all the wrong things.  She could have easily cut the book down by 100 pages (or more) if she had taken out the irrelevant details.  I mean, it’s remotely possible that she focused on setting the scene because of the time travel element to the plot given that the when & where are supposed to be really important… but she gives us headings telling us when the characters were, so I think this excessive length was the sign of an author who was too in love with her own work to pass a critical editorial eye over it.  This description of EVERY SINGLE ITEM they picked up for their party?  You can probably skip that. Apart from her elaborate chronicling of the mundane elements of Henry & Clare’s daily life leaving her prose less than lustrous, there was the other issue of the characters.  I never felt like I knew who they were in anything other than a superficial way, and generally found them annoying and unlikeable.  I mean, the book is called The Time Traveler’s Wife (obviously, the emphasis is my own there), which might suggest that above and beyond all others, we should really get to know Clare, since she is that character.  But I felt like we only got tiny glimpses into what her life was really like, and the perspective we gain from her on what it’s like to be married to Henry is so shallow and obvious.  Obviously she worried about him when he was out time traveling, but couldn’t we have delved a bit deeper than this?  Where were the ramifications of say, never really being able to trust him with their daughter because he could disappear at any instance?  Or what about the whole moral dilemma of even  having a child at all?  That was so important in my mind, and yet it was never actually discussed.  [As an aside: the whole children issue is when the book started to go South for me and I really hated Clare more than anyone at this point in time.  Her cavalier dismissal of adoption as “just pretending” was so reprehensible, and the fact that she didn’t seem to care or consider what kind of life she might be condemning her child to, was so utterly selfish.  She knew Henry’s disease was genetic and that he’d expressed on multiple occasions that he hated time traveling, and yet the most important thing was for Clare to have her own flesh and blood baby… Hate!]  Does Clare ever feel jealous or angry that she can’t time travel?  Does she ever feel as though her actions have meaning, that she controls her life?  Because Henry often just tells her how certain things will turn out (e.g., which house they must wind up in), and she just accepts these as set in stone.  Who was Clare and how did Henry affect her life?  Beats the hell out of me, even though I read 500+ pages about her and Henry.  Here’s the other thing I found perplexing: there is no character development throughout the entire novel, even though we follow Clare from 6 to 35.  Honestly, how is Clare the woman at 25 any different from Clare the girl of 12?  Doesn’t this seem like poor writing to anyone else? OK, so the next glaring problem with this book – it’s marketed as a romantic love story.  And while in one sense I’d accept that it’s a love story, I didn’t see much that was romantic about it.  Setting aside the fact that I didn’t really like either of the two main characters (I wouldn’t go so far as to classify them in Cathy & Heathcliff territory, but you see what I’m getting at), I just didn’t buy this great love that Niffenegger was selling.  Probably because as a reader we get TOLD that they are in love (an awful lot), but this love is rarely if ever showed to us.  Why does Clare love Henry?  And when does she even fall in love with him in earnest?  When she was around 16?  But we never see that happen, not really, because their relationship is forbidden at that point, as the Henry she still knows at that point is like 20 years older than her.  At some point that we don’t get to see she’s been told that they’ll get married, but when does she actually begin to love him?  And what of Henry?  When does he fall in love with her?  We never see that either!  The book starts off with the fact that Henry & Clare will get married (ergo, they must be in love!), but despite chronicling their lives together, the assumption underlying the fact (i.e., that they love each other) is never actually developed or demonstrated!  Sure Henry is a lot nicer to Clare than he is to other women, but is that why Clare loves him?  Why we as readers are supposed to love him (which, for the record, I didn’t)?  Are we supposed to take the fact that Henry & Clare have a lot of graphic sex as evidence of love?  Because I’m pretty sure that that’s another four-letter word starting with l, but that one’s called lust [Another aside: what was up with the sex in this book?  I’m not a prude, but it served no purpose, was kind of crude and unnecessarily detailed, and as a result, made me squirm, but not in a good way.  Blech.  Another example of Niffenegger’s writing aiming for literary and missing the mark by oh so much.] Finally, there were just so many dropped threads in this novel.  Sure, there are lots of things happening, and many big Life Changing moments happen… only then they wind up not being life changing, because they don’t seem to have a long-lasting impact on the characters and just seem thrown in there for shock/entertainment value (e.g., Clare almost getting raped at 17).  There are so many characters to keep track of, even though they fail to have anything interesting happen to them apart from their cameo (e.g., Ingrid, Ben… having read the book, do you even remember who these people are?), and there are all these plot lines that seem like they will lead somewhere, that they will be addressed, and then they don’t and they aren’t.  What happens to Alba?  We know her up until the age of 7, and then nothing!  What about chrono-displaced people?  There’s this sense that this will become a wide-known phenomenon, and yet, it’s never examined later on.  Does only Alba have it, or are there others?  What about the cure that Henry had his doctor working on?  But even more maddeningly, what the eff happens to Clare in the 50 years that the narrative just skips over so that we can see her waiting for Henry when she’s 80?  I understand that with the density of Niffenegger’s writing to cover that timespan would have resulted in another 700 pages, but come on!  In that moment when Clare is waiting, she couldn’t have done a cheesy retrospective at least covering the highlights?  Did she move on with her life as Henry wanted, or did she just spend it waiting?  Seriously!!!  The whole point of the book seemed to be to examine how love shapes our lives, how losing love does that too, and we only get to see one half of that with Clare, even though both avenues were open for exploration. So here’s the bottom line for me: ultimately, I didn’t feel like Niffenegger really created something that earned my emotions and my attachment. I feel like she tapped into ideas and themes at times that are inherently much larger and richer than what she had personally created in her novel, and these things, namely this idea of what it is to love someone and how it is to spend a life loving a person, are by their very nature emotional ideas that anyone who spends but a little time thinking on them will be moved by.  But that doesn’t mean that she as a writer took those ideas and elevated them to a level above and beyond the visceral responses they automatically evoke in us.  She puts an interesting twist on it and examines it in a different way, but I feel like she didn’t really ascend above and beyond her raw materials or reach the potential that was there.  At times she was flat-out emotionally manipulative (what purpose did the 9/11 scene play, exactly?), but not in a skilled or masterful way.  I resented, rather than respected, her for that. Question to ponder:  Is this book secretly just Twilight for adults?  Is Henry kind of just Edward, with Clare blindly loving him just because?  Sure it’s more refined, and the writing is better,  but in the end, do you really want to be with the Henry (or the Edward) character? [Answers to the questions in order: Maybe.  I think so.  No.] Rating: 3 out of 5

16 Comments

  1. 03/07/2009

    I actually love this rant, because I am right there with you. I thought I was alone! I hated this book, which I read back in 2005. The characters were very hard to connect with, and I found the whole thing about him going back to her as a girl sort of creepy. And yes, it was poor writing, because she did seem the same at 12 as at 25. And Henry is not a sympathetic character. Oh, you got all the frustrations I felt out on the page! Yea!

  2. 03/07/2009

    Steph! I rated this 3 out of 5, too! While I didn’t oppose it as strongly, I definitely can relate with you on this. I couldn’t pinpoint what it was, specifically, and I don’t remember exactly what made this not a ‘keeper’ for me. Usually, when I read something borrowed that I felt like quality reading, I would list them on my notebook as must-buy and must-keep. Looking back now, I don’t remember that Time Traveler’s Wife was a horrible read, but because I didn’t list it down as a must-keep, I’m pretty sure I was just indifferent to it.

    The thing, though, for me was that the main factor that made me like it was that I was affected with their romance and I did shed some tears over it (yeah, I know), and I think that was the reason why it made it to 3 stars for me. As for the rest of the writing, it was unremarkable and I didn’t find it literary either. I agree with you that it felt the author was trying to make it so, but she didn’t quite achieve it.

    Bottomline, I didn’t appreciate the writing, but I did connect with the characters and their love story (I’m a hopeless romantic). I did find it quite enjoyable, somehow, but not worthwhile.

  3. 03/07/2009

    PS. To make things clearer on how I felt about it, it was like watching a B movie that I think is terrible but I’m watching and enjoying it anyway, but afterwards I still feel it was a terrible movie. I won’t go so far to say that this book was a terrible book, but that I felt it was not a good book, but I languished in it anyway, and finished it. (I usually don’t finish a book if I really can’t stand it.) So, yes, I do share most of your sentiments. Whew, that was a long explanation, lol.

  4. 03/07/2009

    @ Priscilla: Whew! I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought this book was less than enjoyable. Most of what I’ve read online is about how it’s so dreamy and people get all wistful about as though it was this great love story instead of an interesting paradigm filled with less than impressive characters and writing. I mean, I still feel like I don’t get Henry’s character, what his motivations were, anything, and Niffenegger had more than enough paper to have fleshed him out more.
     
    @ Claire: I think I do understand how you feel about the book, because even though there were a lot of things I took issue with on a technical level, I did still give the book a 3! If I had really hated it beyond reproach (as I have other books I’ve reviewed!) I would have rated it much lower. I do admit that even though I felt the characterization and plotting was somewhat lacking, I did still connect with certain themes and ideas in the book; I even wiped a way few errant tears myself near the end. I think it was entertaining storytelling on some level, so even without that emotional resonance at the end I would probably still have given it a 3.
    And I see what you’re saying with the movie analogy – there are plenty of B (or even C…) grade films that I enjoy in a guilty pleasure way. There’s just always this fine line of whether the people involved realized the caliber of the film they were making, and that’s how I felt about this book. Niffenegger must think this book is art (she teaches MFA-level writing courses… which I find a bit disturbing), and I really do not think it is much more than an airport/beach read.

  5. 03/07/2009

    I totally agree: airport/beach read, exactly! In other words, good while it lasts, but not a keeper.

  6. Laura
    03/07/2009

    Steph, I totally agree (This was one of my train books while in Japan).
    Now that I think about it, I don’t even really remember the book that much… so I guess that shows how much of an impact it made on me. Oh wait…I remember thinking it was way too long.

  7. 03/07/2009

    I think we’re in consensus of the book. I don’t really care for their romance but the turn of the events made me want to read on. Toward the second half, I didn’t hate it, I just wasn’t engrossed.

  8. 03/07/2009

    I bought a copy of this book because it was on sale (three for the price of two!) but I haven’t read it yet, which is why I merely skimmed through this post.

    This scares me though:

    Is this book secretly just Twilight for adults?

    as does this:

    most of what Niffenegger writes about are the minutia of daily life that are ultimately not important in real life, and certainly not in a novel, and especially if it means that you sacrifice developing your characters at the expense of cataloging what they ate when they went out for sushi.

  9. 03/08/2009

    @ Laura: This was kind of like Jonathan Strange for me for a while, as I’ve had this book for essentially as long, and I know I tried to read it twice previously, only to lose interest and put it down in favour of other books. I suppose a train or traveling is a good time to read it since you have no other choice but to read it (or to people watch!). But then again, remember how I brought that tiny copy of Middlemarch with us on our Extravaganza and I managed to read exactly 0 pages of it?
     
    @ Matt: Yes, I’m with you. The only problem is that when you strip off the romantic element with this book, there’s not a whole lot left is there? Just a bunch of soap opera-ish plot devices!
     
    @Tuesday: I don’t wholly regret the time I spent reading the book, as at times it was an engaging story. But is this a great example of modern literary fiction? No. Also, I laughed when I saw you were so scared by comparison to Twilight! Honestly, when you do get around to reading the book, I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on it and to see how much of what I said you agree with. It’s a shame about this one because it has a lot of potential, and I feel like its own creator does it a disservice!

  10. 03/09/2009

    I listened to the audiobook a loooooong time ago. I didn’t love it but I didn’t hate it. I wasn’t looking for a literary novel at the time. I loved the premise but thought it could have been done better.

  11. 03/09/2009

    I wonder how this would go as an audiobook. I would imagine the time travel would be even more discombobulating, especially since you couldn’t flip back to find out when in time everyone was. Then again, you could also fast forward… 😉

  12. 03/10/2009

    Wow, great review! At the time I read this I felt that there were just some things that didn’t resonate with me, but I didn’t really delve too deeply as to why. I remember thinking that Claire and Henry didn’t seem very developed and it was hard to get close to either character. I just didn’t really like either of them. I also felt that the young Claire/middle-aged Henry sections were a bit disturbing, especially since he kept popping up unexpectedly naked. I also wondered about what had happened to Claire after Henry was gone, did she really spend all her time waiting for the moment when he would show up again? It seems like things pointed in that direction, and that bothered me. Though I did have problems with this book, I was mostly engaged with the story, and I cried as well. I agree that the book was a bit emotionally manipulative as well, what with Niffenegger pushing all the right buttons, but failing to invest the story with true and realistic emotions. The funny thing is, it seems as though every time I hear about this book, it is held up as the height of romance. I am really glad to have read your review, I think you did a really great job articulating the problems in this book.

  13. 03/11/2009

    Thanks! I’m glad I can be the vessel for expressing everybody else’s angst regarding this book. I’ve never been one to shy away from unpopular opinions, but as it turns out, disliking this book isn’t actually all that uncommon…

  14. What a great review! I’m sorry that you didn’t love it as much as everyone else, but I always think a book is doing something if it can evoke hatred (a much better emotion than boredom for readers!)

    I think you’ll enjoy the film a bit more, as many of the things you criticise aren’t present. I love the detail of this review though – very interesting.

  15. 08/22/2009

    Well, I didn’t really hate this book, as I did give it a 3 out of 5. I just didn’t love it as most people do – there were more things that bugged me about it than not, but I certainly didn’t hate it, and it’s not like I can’t see why people do like it.
    And whenever we get around to seeing the film, you know I’ll write about it and let y’all know what I think!

  16. […] Azkaban) and other times, I hate it (e.g. The Time Traveler’s Wife… though to be fair, the time travel was perhaps the thing I disliked least about that book!). So although I did not read and review Thomas Mullen’s The Revisionist, Tony did, and I have […]

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