December 2003

Michael Farrelly


The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Travelerís Wife by Audrey Niffenegger made me cry. A lot.

Not polite and quiet tears that well up and nearly burst from your eyes, but big heaving sobs that came in waves. There were several times that I actually cried about the book while not reading it.

Whatís it about? Simple answer there, a time traveler named Henry and his patient wife Clare. Henry does not time travel with a machine or portal or magic bag of sand. Rather he suffers from a genetic condition that causes him to randomly appear in earlier and later moments of his life. He arrives completely nude and often on the run. Popping up nude in the middle of a Chicago winter can easily be seen as a suicidal gesture. Henry appears to his wife Clare when she is six and he is in his thirties. He appears to her off and on for years before he ever meets her, when she is 20 and he twenty eight. She knows him from his future and her past. To keep this from being too confusing Niffenegger provides placeholders with the year and the ages of the couple at the time.

But this is not a novel about time travel. It is, but it is the same way that Citizen Kane is a film about sledding. Time travel is the quandary, the problem, the joy and the sorrow of the book, but the meat of the story is the love between Henry and Clare.

It is rare that lovers are portrayed well. Often the simple tropes of endless romance and infatuation override the reality of love. Love is about stolen covers and sex to end arguments. Love is about the smell of your loverís hair after she showers. Simple wonderful things that will make you ache inside when you realize you canít have them because of distance or circumstance. What Henry misses on his jaunts through time is waking up next to his wife, making love on sunday mornings, the way she looks deep in thought, the horror of her cooking. Henry is a fantastic entity, but he is humanized by his love for Clare.

Longing comprises so much of Henry and Clareís life together. Clare is patient, but not a female Job. Henry takes his unique circumstances in stride, but still rails against the cruel hand fate has dealt him. Clare longs for Henry's child, and here Niffenegger deals with a subject not usually spoken of in polite company, miscarriages. I will admit that there are horrific moments for the couple, who suffer a string of near children stolen by the vicissitudes of fate and genetics, but they temper the love story and test the truth of the dyad the composes the heart of the story. The darkest moments in the character's lives are where we most find them clinging to one another rather than being blown apart.

The Time Traveler's Wife is a Chicago book. Niffenegger is a native Chicagoan and she describes the city, specifically the north side, perfectly. This is not a vague description of "bungalows and blustery politicos." Niffenegger instead dives into the joys of the eclectic cum yuppie neighborhood around Belmont and Clark streets. She decribes the shifting chameleon bar Berlin and even manages to capture the beauty of a side street in summer when the leaves rustle in the breeze. This book oozes the lifeblood of the city and gives her lovers an ideal stage for their lives to play out.

I warn again that there is a terrible sadness to this book. Even with Niffenegger's light touch in places their is true grief for some of the indignities that her couple suffers. But what better testament to good writing is there than the ability to make characters so developed and true that even their imagined slights move us to tears?

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
MacAdam/Cage Publishing
ISBN: 1931561648
518 Pages