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