The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was published in 2003, and is 537 pages. It was a difficult book to put down, so I read it in about three days. My comments on the text are not specific spoilers, but be warned that they will reveal some of the major themes of the book.
The basic premise is that Henry DeTamble has a genetic problem that causes him to slip out of the present and into the past or future without much warning. He travels to places he has been or will be, and often runs into people he cares about. The time travel tends to take place when he’s having strong emotional feelings, stress, or strain, and leaves him naked, physically nauseous, and often in precarious situations.
Clare is Henry’s great love. He slips into her childhood and adolescence once they are married, and is given the gift of watching her develop through their meetings. Her great challenge is waiting for him, and it’s something she has to do all of her life.
I was drawn to the characters in this book because of their deep flaws. They are imperfect–sometimes astoundingly so–but their love for one another is enduring and carries them through their difficulties. In no way is this book a cliche–it is an entirely original love story (if there is such a thing.) It is a bit confusing, but once I got into the flow of the dated entries and twin narrators, I was able to keep up. I thought I had it figured out, but I didn’t. This book actually made me cry, and books don’t often do that to me.
The themes of waiting, love, and loss are prevalent in the book. Through quotes from A. S. Byatt’s Possession, and through conversations in the text, one question stands out: Is it better to have great love in a short time, or not at all? I think the answer repeatedly driven home is that it is better to have loved.
This book reminded me of another book I read some years ago by Sheldon Vanauken–A Severe Mercy. In that book, C. S. Lewis counsels his friend who has lost his wife by saying that her death was a ‘severe mercy’ because all of our human relationships and loves will end, and death is the way that keeps the love intact, though it causes us much pain. The alternative is divorce, and that kills the love, itself.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is not a light beach read. It’s dark and deep and heavy. It is, however, a great book with fully realized characters, a compelling plot, and a unique premise.
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(I just saw that the movie version is coming out in August. Here is a trailer.)