I was completely spellbound by The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel. It was a story that seized me by my heart and imagination and didn’t let go for over five hundred pages and many hours of reading. It begins with Clare’s voice: It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays… Long ago, men went to sea, and women waited for them, standing on the edge of the water, scanning the horizon for the tiny ship. Now I wait for Henry. He vanishes unwillingly, without warning. I wait for him.
I’ve been in love. Sometimes that means being left at the margins, wondering about the man I love, the parts of him he won’t reveal, waiting for him to come to me, to talk with me. Worrying about the state of our relationship. Clare has my thoughts in her throat.
Henry speaks next: How does it feel? How does it feel? Sometimes it feels as though your attention has wandered for just an instant… I am always going, and she cannot follow.
Is this how my husband feels about us, that he must leave, at least emotionally, and always leave without me? Is this the mutable state of all relationships, that we move not so much together as in close proximity to each other and sometimes in different spheres altogether?
Love stories are a staple of book plots and often boringly predictable. Not so the love story in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Its transcendent circumstances lift its characters well beyond the bonds of earth’s calculable orbit and launch them into a world where calendars can’t determine the time of year, and presence in one year won’t predict continuity. The book follows the relationship of Clare and Henry, a couple who barely stay in touch with each other physically yet remain loyal and infatuated forever – both before and after they’ve met. Nothing in this world or outside of it will ever interrupt the love that binds them, not even Henry’s inability to remain in his wife’s presence for any length of time.
Back and forth between Clare and Henry, the story navigates the complexity of their relationship, in and out of various time periods. The lovers confront each other at different moments of their lives, not always recognizing who they are. Clare is a child. Henry is an adult in his prime. Finally they are at a compatible age to marry and so they do. Then they are apart. Clare, old now, waits. Henry, in trouble, hopes to return to her. In Niffenegger’s deft hands, time is neither permanent, reliable, nor linear but a malleable element to be bent for the purpose of describing the depth of their romance.
Henry suffers greatly for the disorder that causes him to jump in and out of time periods without warning, often landing him in perilous situations, unclothed, vulnerable. His jumps leave him confused, injured, pursued, accused of crimes, and uncertain of his future, even if there will be a future. The one thing he can count on is Clare’s steadfast love, the quality of constancy that brings him back to her.
Anyone who has ever felt the despair of betrayal or of a broken relationship will be moved by the endurance of Henry and Clare’s love, he who meanders in and out of their lives, she who waits devotedly. No one will experience the fabricated genetic disorder that precipitates Henry’s time traveling, but all of us have felt the depth of the couple’s passion. Or long to. Between the book’s covers is a soaring sci-fi/fantasy romance twisted inside a freakish yet compelling storyline.
I’ve read that Niffenegger wrote the book at a time that she was questioning her own relationships. She was also influenced by her father who traveled often during her childhood.
If you’ve seen the movie, but have not read the book, read the book. If you wait for love or have been fortunate to have found it, read the book. And to all others – read the book.
The Time Traveler’s Wife won the Exclusive Books Boeke Prize awarded in South Africa and follows this award given to many other prestigious books, most of which I’ve also read. In other words, a book in excellent company.
I look forward to learning about your favorite T fiction books.
Other books that were serious contenders for T:
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
A Time to Kill by John Grisham
The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
To the End of the Land by David Grossman
A Town like Alice by Neville Shute
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Book cover image courtesy: Google images and MacAdam/Cage