Book review: The Time Traveler’s Wife

Book cover: The Time Traveler's WifeAudrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife isn’t the sort of book I’d expect to enjoy. In fact, I did everything I could to resist its premise for the first half or so, until I finally realized how much I liked the characters and wanted to learn what happens next.

Why was I so convinced that I wouldn’t enjoy it?

  • My sci-fi detectors were on high alert given the improbable premise.
  • I typically shy away from anything that could fit into the romance genre, however loosely.
  • The cover image is of the legs-and-feet variety, and thus makes me want to hurl.

Imagine my surprise when I stopped trying like mad to grasp the complicated rules of the time travel gimmick and was forced to admit that I really cared about the characters. (And, having stopped scoffing and rolling my eyes at the temporal mechanics, it all started to make perfect sense.)

Chicago librarian Henry DeTamble is the title time lord who meets Clare, his future wife, when she is a young girl and his 40-year-old self pays her a visit. Possessed of a genetic malformation that causes him to become “unstuck” in time, he jumps backward (and occasionally forward) to various points in his linear life, usually when under physical or emotional stress. The adult Henry, while visiting himself as a child, teaches the himself the arts of lock-picking and wallet-snatching — necessary skills for when he must quickly find clothing and money during his unexpected travels.

The foreknowledge his condition affords him is a blessing and a curse. It makes for some palpable tension as Henry and Clare encounter one another at different points in their lives — the teenaged Clare falls hard for visiting middle-aged Henry, who knows that they will wind up together but doesn’t yet know the circumstances. And their first “linear” encounter during their 20s reverses roles, since he hasn’t met her yet and is (happily) blindsided by her forwardness.

Their relationship, however steadfast and passionate, isn’t without trials. It’s touch-and-go on their wedding day whether Henry will actually be present to walk down the aisle. Clare never knows when or for how long Henry will be time-traveling. His taste for mood-altering substances verges on the immoderate. And Henry’s condition makes conceiving a child a difficult if not traumatic and near deadly undertaking for the couple.

Despite occasionally verging on the melodramatic, the characters are well-drawn, with complicated family histories and close (sometimes too close) friendships. Their dialogue is witty but not unnatural, which balances the suspension of disbelief the reader needs to accept the supernatural elements.

I was also gratified that my wonderful fiancé enjoyed it, too. This is probably a book I’ll read again, and I’m curious about her second novel, Her Fearful Suspicions, as well as the upcoming The Chinchilla Girl in Exile.

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