I guess I’ll begin with the regular spiel.
Why did I read this book?: I have heard a LOT about this book from multiple sources, and all the reviews have been positive. That said, this is not a book that typically I would pick up and read on my own, and when the opportunity arose for hosting a book club (and from the eager reactions from everyone involved!), it was finally time to succumb and read the damn thing.
The more I think about this book, the less I like it. Simply put: it creeped me out (and NOT in a good way).
I am torn. On the one hand, I can appreciate what Ms. Niffenegger has tried to accomplish. She has attempted to write a sweeping epic love story with a peculiar quirk. Instead of infidelity or mistrust, the problem is completely out of the hands of the couple–Henry De Tamble is an unwilling time traveler that can flicker in and out of time at any second. While I can appreciate the pains Ms. Niffenegger took to make this time traveling love story accessible, I just couldn’t really buy it. I really did not like Henry De Tamble at all. He struck me as a selfish, self-pitying clod for the entire story. Clare was only marginally better–but perhaps to best discuss my qualms with the book, I should explain a bit more.
A particular theme in this book that prickles me is the concept of Fate vs. Free Will. In my opinion, this story was completely devoid of Free Will–which is something I have a really hard time with, and don’t agree with. The love story, while touching and poignant when Clare and Henry are both consenting adults, really creeped me out initially. The hardest thing for me to come to grips with is how neither Clare nor Henry had a choice in falling in love. Clare’s life has been so drastically skewed because ever since she was a child, Henry has always been there guiding her, being her friend, mentor, and lover. Similarly, Henry never had a choice because in his early 20s, Clare approaches Henry and lets him know that they are meant to be together and he will spend the rest of his life traveling back to her, and falling in love with her. Sure, it works because they actually ‘love’ each other, but the predicament is circular, and there is no real free will involved. It bugs me enormously. Especially in the case of Clare (who genuinely never had a chance–she literally spends her ENTIRE LIFE WAITING for Henry–even when she’s an 80 year old woman, she’s still WAITING for him, from beyond the grave!)
This thematic dislike aside, however, I appreciate the novelty of the story with one character moving both backwards and forwards in time, while his lover is bound to a linear path. I liked the idea that time travel is not something that can be controlled and is a genetic disorder, and Henry can’t do anything about it (but again, isn’t that just fate over free will?).
This book as a time travel story disappointed me on almost every level. Inherently, time travel stories have some kind of screwy paradoxical problem. Most of these stories involve some kind of impending paradox that comes about from f*ing with time (think Back to the Future and Biffland). The Time Traveler’s Wife took a different approach to this scifi theme, and did away with any possibility for altering the future or the past. The universe in this book is closed, and static. Anyone in the vacuum CANNOT change the ultimate outcome. A time traveler has no ability to alter the future in any way because every outcome has already been determined and compensated for.
Well, where’s the fun in that? Perhaps if Ms. Niffenegger attempted to show her characters actively trying to change what their ultimate fate is, doing something other than simply floating along the pulling tide of destiny like lumps on a log, it would have been entertaining. But, like I said before, these characters are completely passive and devoid of any fighting instinct or further dimension.
Also, the physics of Henry’s time travel bugs. The discussions he has with Clare and his past/future self concerning causation and how it can only happen ‘once’ doesn’t make any sense (because there is no ‘first time’ in this closed, cyclical environment). I was disappointed in the author’s quick attempts to try and explain the mechanics and then dismissal as a genetic disorder that there is no cure for. For example, there is a scene where Clare draws a picture of 40 year old Henry and tries to “change” what Henry knows happens in the future by writing a date on the portrait. Henry says that there is no date on the picture, and Clare’s writing one SHOULD cause some sort of time paradox–however, it doesn’t happen because Clare later trims off the date–again implying there is no free will, because it has already happened, time is cyclical, and because of this, even if Clare and Henry try to change the future/past it doesn’t matter. It will be negated in some way.
Another novelty Ms. Niffenegger integrates into her tale is breaking one of the cardinal rules of time travel–Henry actively seeks out and openly interacts with his “other self” while traveling. There is so much interaction, in fact, that some very questionable (and frankly disturbing) scenes ensue–at Clare and Henry’s wedding another version of Henry shows up to say the actual vows; there’s some sex involving another Henry (while present Henry is still in the room, sleeping)…it’s just weird and off-putting. Could you cheat on your spouse with another version of your spouse? Would or should he be jealous? Just…no. For these reasons, and more that I won’t fully divulge to avoid major spoilers, the scifi aspect fell completely flat.
But this novel isn’t really about time travel. It’s really a love story, and a story about loss and trials and the ability for that love to transcend time, right?
Unfortunately, I could care less about the romance. Perhaps this is because I did not like either character. Perhaps it is because there was no honeymoon period for our lovers–there was always impending danger or misunderstanding…either Clare is a big crying self-pitying mess over miscarriages, or something really nasty happens to Henry (I won’t spoil it for you, but it comes completely out of nowhere), and so on and so forth. They could never be on the same page and just be HAPPY. Not a single respite. It was a bit much for me. The book focused on the negative aspects of their relationship, and the problems they faced without any of the positive payoff. You don’t even get to see the two of them ‘fall in love’ because of the nature of the time travel love story. I’m not a fan of sadism, and there was so much unnecessary, exploitative pain in this story and it felt like it was written for shock value instead of being an intrinsic part of the story.
I won’t even start to delve into the obvious objections about the sexually charged relationship that a 40 year old Henry has with a teenaged Clare.
Ultimately, this story just didn’t work for me. As a romance, it felt contrived and mean-spirited, and as a time travel story it fell flat on its face.
Memorable Quotes/Parts: Oh, where to begin. How about the scene where Henry takes Clare’s virginity (yeah, she’s 18 and he’s somewhere in the vicinty of 43). Touching. Or, the cringeworthy scene after Clare is beaten and date raped?
Additional Thoughts: Nothing comes to mind.
Verdict: Save your money. If you want to feel exploited and emotionally drained, wait for the movie version to come out. At least Eric Bana and the lovely Rachel McAdams are in that.
Rating: 4 Bad, but not without some merit