As Niffenegger’s debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, has sold nearly five million copies worldwide and has been translated into over thirty languages. But does this make it any good?
The Time Traveller’s Wife is about a man with a genetic disorder that allows him to unpredictably travel through time, and the woman that eventually becomes his wife, struggling to cope with his absences. Henry is a librarian who is far too concerned with making ‘punk’ references, and Clare is an Artist that makes paper sculptures, and between the two of them there is a lot of pretentiousness.
The book is not really science fiction or fantasy, it is a mainstream romance with ‘some science fiction elements’ in it. The story is… actually, non-existent. It’s a snapshot of these two people’s lives and an exploration of their relationship, but there is no real plot. At one point Henry visits a specialist who discovers his time travelling is a genetic disorder (because thats how DNA works, just ask Marvel comics) and here Niffenegger misses her biggest opportunity.
There could have been a thriller aspect, actually giving this book some real story: the government (or governments, multiple) could find out from the doctor (who could have been self serving instead of so blandly empathetic,) and could be hunting Henry, to study him and try to weaponize his ability. But instead we get a melodramatic ‘relationship story’ in which Henry’s friends are like stamps or coins – he just keeps collecting them throughout the book, and they are just always… there. In the background, or on the proverbial shelf.
Despite the story (or lack of) the relationship aspects are written well… mostly. Clare first meets Henry when she is six, and over the years as he pops in and out of her life she falls in love with him and learns that they are married in the future. She essentially sacrifices developing her personality and life to the “prophecy” of guaranteed marriage and ‘happy ever after’ regardless of her actions.
Both sides of the story are told from first-person perspective, but unfortunately, the characters themselves are actually quite bland, and the tones/voices used throughout the book are indistinguishable from each other. There are many many plot elements that felt forced or lazy, but there were also some pretty descent ones as well. Henry not only time travels, but also shifts through space as well. In one scene he time travels back and finds himself trapped inside a cage-like atrium in the library he works at that seems to have been built just for him to get trapped in (how unlucky).
Like James Cameron’s Terminator, it is only Henry’s body that time travels – so he always finds himself naked after he time travels. This leads to many situations where he is chased, arrested, beaten up, almost frozen to death in the snow: and with a few, brief exceptions, we are told about all these dramas and exciting sequences but never actually shown them. They are used as a ‘mystery element’ to give Clare something to worry about.
Personally, a naked man time travelling and finding himself on the run from Federal Agents and Russian/Chinese/Other military scientists would make a much more interesting book. In fact, I might just go write that book now.
But this book is a Romance Drama. That is all it is. It is written predominantly for women readers, who get off on reading about how Henry “licks her cunt” (a phrasing I find repugnant regardless of the book or the context of the story it is in,) and Niffeneggers self-evident (and confessed) sexual frustrations at the time are evident throughout the book. It almost becomes the author’s erotic fan-fiction journal.
There is a moment akin to in The Watchmen where a time-travelling Henry comes home to find Clare in bed with another version of Henry and climbs into bed with her and fucks her right there and then, next to himself. There is also a moment where Henry’s father walks in on two naked fifteen-year old Henrys doing what, according to Niffeneggar, ‘anybody would do if they could travel back in time.’ Her understanding of male sexuality is as accurate as her understanding of genetics.
This is a harmless read, perhaps not deserving of the praise it has received, but still enjoyable in most aspects. Women will enjoy the book for it’s romantic melodrama: the male demographic may be put off, expecting the military or X-men to come into it somehow and being disappointed that nothing exciting ever happens.
An acceptable 3.5/5.
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