Jennifer (aka EM)'s Reviews > The Time Traveler's Wife

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
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Sep 30, 08

Recommended to Jennifer (aka EM) by: Veekee
Recommended for: those who have loved and lost; physicists who don't take themselves too seriously
Read in September, 2008

It's been a long time since I've stayed up late into the night, reading just another chapter ... and then another ... and so what if it's 3 a.m., and tears are streaming down my cheeks, and all that's left to read are the acknowledgements at the end and I do, because I'm as unwilling to let these characters go as they are to let each other go.

The themes of this novel are as complex as you want to make them: freewill versus determinism; genetic abnormalities, relativity and evolutionary theory; memories, love, death, loss and our relationship to time. But aside from the themes that lend the story depth, this novel is first and foremost a powerful love story.

The science fiction premise of time travelling is dramatic and effective to keep the story moving along (albeit in a disconcertingly non-linear--and occasionally confusing--fashion) and to illuminate the themes. I found myself interested in how the conceit was working and trying to sort out the internal logic of both the time travel and of Henry's chromosomal disability. But that quickly took second fiddle (!) to the main story arc. (Glossing over the inconsistencies in the logic of Henry's time travel is important to preserve the 'believability' of the rest of the story. Niffenegger has a less-than-adequate mastery of the time travel conceit. She would do well to study Roddenberry's Star Trek: The Next Generation time-space continuum rift narratives if she chooses to continue in a sci-fi vein for her second novel).

Regardless, time travelling serves primarily here as a device to illustrate how people, and in particular Clare and Henry, find each other and how their individual stories and the events of their lives become interwoven into an "us" that is both inevitable and random.

If we reject the science fiction premise as poorly executed or too science fiction-ey to be believable--especially as nested within this story that is otherwise so very 'normal'--we can still look on the bouncing around through time and space as being an apt analogy for memory, and we can all relate to that. We reminisce about the happy times, reliving them again and again to sustain us in times of difficulty. We ruminate about past hurts and traumas, unable to let them go. Both the good and the bad memories shape us into the people we are. Henry is frustrated by knowing what is going to happen but is unable, because he didn't the first time around, to change the outcome. Often, we wish we could go back in time and change things, recognizing all the while that--whether for good or for ill--every experience we've had has made us into who we are.

Niffenegger is clever in showing us how our place in time--the music we listen to, the books we read, the clothes we wear--do more than just define us at any given age: they carry forward into the people we become. Niffenberger plays with the theme of time travel in myriad ways, some subtle and some ironic, but all with the intention of looking at time, place, space and memory from every possible angle. As Clare looks down at the dance floor at the Violent Femmes' concert, she notes the audience is in their teens, 20s, 30s and "even some older." Henry and his younger self travel backwards in time from the 19th, to the 18th, to the 17th Centuries as they stroll through successive rooms in the museum. On a trip from Chicago to Michigan, Clare and Henry remark on how strange it is to skip ahead an hour moving from Central to Eastern timezone.

These images reinforce the much larger question of how we are shaped by the times in which we live. Henry's affinity for punk music gives him a certain identity in his 20s, but is no less important at defining him in his late-30s. The opportunity Henry has to re-experience events at different ages and stages, as a child, then as a young adult, then in middle-age, give him an enviable omniscience. The implication is that Henry gains a perspective and wisdom that we lesser-evolved lifeforms never have: he occupies some realm between human and angel. (Clare's fascination for angels and birds; and her lapsed Catholicism--none of which are overtly explored in any heavy-handed way--resonate when played off of the spiritual connotations of Henry's uniqueness).

But the bottom line, the consistent theme and the anchor point for the story is the love between these two characters. Henry is a planet revolving around Clare, his sun. She gives his life shape, direction and purpose. And the sun is nothing without having something to shine upon: Clare needs Henry as much as he needs her. Thankfully, the story doesn't degenerate into some saccharine cliché -- although I now hear it is being made into a movie starring Rachel McAdams, and if anyone can make a rich, complex and powerful love story into a trite chick-flick, it would be her.
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by Fee (new) - rated it 5 stars

Fee It's been a long time since I've stayed up late into the night, reading just another chapter ... and then another ... and so what if it's 3 a.m., and tears are streaming down my cheeks, and all that's left to read are the acknowledgements at the end and I do, because I'm as unwilling to let these characters go as they are to let each other go.

I could have written these words myself - I know exactly what you mean because I did exactly the same thing. Great review :)


Jennifer (aka EM) Hi Coal! Thanks for dropping by ... I've just this a.m. revised my rating to 3 stars. I've been going back and forth from 3 to 4 stars on this one. As much as I was emotionally affected by the story, I can't seem to decide how good a writer Niffenegger is.

When I look at other books on my list, e.g. The Glass Castle, Clara Callan, Midwives--all books that pack a big emotional punch, but may not necessarily have the strength of writing or complexity of others, I have put these in the 3-star range.

What I've come to is that the time travelling as a metaphor for memory, if it's a metaphor for memory, is an absolutely brilliant device. It's critical to the emotional power behind the story. But if it wasn't intentionally metaphorical, then it was being used, in a way, as a cheap author's trick. That casts the impact of the story and quality of the writing in a different light.

These are my musings this a.m., but I'm not 100% sure myself, so happy to be convinced otherwise.

What do you think?



message 3: by Manny (new)

Manny I now hear it is being made into a movie starring Rachel McAdams, and if anyone can make a rich, complex and powerful love story into a trite chick-flick, it would be her.

Honestly, I don't understand what you have against Ms McAdams. Whatever she may lack in acting ability she more than makes up for in Pouting, Looking Soulfully Out Of Huge Dark Eyes and Coyly Displaying Her Petite But Perfect Figure. Some people like to criticize for the hell of it.


message 4: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jun 17, 2010 06:30AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) True story: we share a dentist. I learned this one day during an appointment when for some reason I dissed Ms McPouty and both the dentist and hygienist looked at me soulfully out of their huge dark eyes and assured me that she is just the nicest, sweetest gal you ever would want to meet.

So now, I also associate her with dental appts. It's not looking good for me and Rachel to ever be BFFs. (I'm more a Scarlett Johannsen kinda gal).


Jennifer (aka EM) Geez, Manny and Ben. Thanks for the "likes" -- TTW is a book I'm really conflicted about enjoying as much as I did. I had this at 4 stars at one point! Sheesh....


message 6: by Jen (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jen I still have it at four stars, but the rating is definitely more emotionally driven. This is a book that I could distance myself from and attempt to rate only on the merit of structure, but it isn't something I necessarily want to do. That probably doesn't make much sense (my ratings don't really either).


message 7: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jun 17, 2010 08:09AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) I know what you mean, Jen. The interesting thing is, I actually think the structure, metaphor and symbolism she used was very strong. I'm just not sure she was fully in control of it, and her tendency (confirmed in her next, Her Fearful Symmetry, according to most reviews) to gloss over the structural flaws with sentiment is kind of like the use of too much sustain pedal to gloss over the fact that you might not be hitting exactly the right notes.

But here's the thing: it's a love story. And what's love if it isn't sentiment? By that criterion alone, I think your four stars is fully valid!


message 8: by Jen (last edited Jun 17, 2010 08:34AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jen I'm not so sure about the structure...reading through it the way I did (liberally applying gloss) didn't allow for analysis down on the word level.

And I think you're right; I came at it thinking chick lit fic lite and re-calibrated to a more genre level appreciation...which makes me wonder about how genre affects rating, or rather how one perceives a book's classification determines how judicious the rating.

I would definitely give fewer stars to a technical book that wasn't technical, but would be more likely to be gracious with stars when rating something more fantastical.


message 9: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jun 17, 2010 08:48AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) Jen wrote: "which makes me wonder about how genre affects rating, or rather how one perceives a book's classification determines how judicious the rating. "

That's a great line of thought to pursue. My initial rating of 4 stars, like yours, was based on the fact that I gave myself permission to have the emotional response I did to this book because the person who recommended it to me--gave me the copy I read, in fact--is someone who wouldn't ever read what I (and she, and you most likely) would classify as chick lit.

So I kept pulling it out of the category where I put things like Jodi Picault (sp? can't be bothered to look up, you know who I mean) and Nicholas Sparks, etc.

Interesting thread on Moira's update of Her Fearful Symmetry that also talks about TTW. There seems to be a vein amongst those of us who are def. not inclined to cheap sentiment, but who responded positively to TTW book and feel a little ashamed of that.


message 10: by Jen (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jen Well, at least I don't want to be inclined to cheap sentiment, but sometimes a deal's a deal.


message 11: by Jen (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jen But I'm not going to admit that again. Niffenegger, you got me once, but you won't get me twice. (Because I'll go elsewhere:))


Jennifer (aka EM) *shakes Jen's hand* now THAT's a deal. (let's let this be our--and our extended network of GR friends'--little secret, shall we?)


message 13: by Jen (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jen Why not? I'm sure everyone here on GR knows how to keep a secret.


Jordan Manny wrote: "I now hear it is being made into a movie starring Rachel McAdams, and if anyone can make a rich, complex and powerful love story into a trite chick-flick, it would be her.

Honestly, I don't unders..."


It's ok Manny because the book sucked harder than the movie. It's the only book I've ever actually thrown into the ocean! However I do love Rachel McAdams! : )


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