The Time Traveler's Wife

by Audrey Niffenegger

Published by Macadam/Cage

518 pages, 2003



Let's Do the Time Warp Again

Reviewed by David Abrams


Every so often, a novel lands in my hands as if it fell from the sky -- a happy surprise of literary delights, a book which transports and transfixes me, an original story which creates its own world with what seems like effortless artistry.

Audrey Niffenegger's remarkable debut, The Time Traveler's Wife, is just such a novel.

The Time Traveler's Wife is an infection that pleasantly invades your system and refuses to let go of the imagination even after you turn the last of its 518 pages and move on to the next book on your shelf.

It's the kind of word-of-mouth book that readers cheerfully spread, like a benign virus, to anyone around them willing to lose themselves in a hopelessly romantic story, forsaking most other obligations like work, family and personal hygiene.

Yes, The Time Traveler's Wife is that good.

And, yes, I'm a self-proclaimed die-hard romantic of the male species who's been known to openly weep at the end of Jane Austen movies, but I'm here to tell you that this chunky book is designed to please everyone in the room -- swooners and cynics alike. It's a love story concealed inside a suspense novel wrapped in a thin veneer of science fiction.

At the center of the story stand two characters, Henry and Clare. I'll let Henry explain their situation:

I met Clare for the first time in October, 1991. She met me for the first time in September, 1977; she was six, I will be thirty-eight. She's known me all her life. In 1991 I'm just getting to know her.

Henry is a Time Traveler who drops in and out of various moments in his life -- sometimes back to the past, sometimes forward to the future. Clare leads a chronologically-normal life. The two of them intersect, in "real time," when Clare is 20 and Henry is 28; however, she's known him -- a much older-version, that is -- since she was a little girl. For years, she's known he was her future husband, so by the time she actually meets the real-time Henry (who's a little befuddled at this strange girl rushing up to him in the Chicago library where he works), Clare practically has their wedding already planned out.

Confused yet? Don't worry, Niffenegger patiently and carefully guides the reader through the tangled narrative.

The story follows the lovers across a timeline shaped like a Mobius strip, alternating between their viewpoints. They do their best to live normal lives, going after the American Dream of steady jobs, witty friends and children of their own. Ultimately, their relationship turns as sweet and tragic as an Emily Dickinson poem.

As you can imagine, The Time Traveler's Wife has the potential to bend your mind with cosmic philosophies which pretzel-twist logic and reality. It's probably the only novel I've ever read which turns discussions about free will and determinism into page-turning entertainment.

Niffenegger never lets her carefully-designed world get out of control. There are certain "rules" to Henry's travel -- for instance, he tries not to tell anyone what will happen to them in the future for fear that he'll return to an altered world; he never travels far outside the time boundaries of his life (in other words, no dinosaurs or medieval knights make appearances in this book); and he revisits events in his life more than once, even if it means watching his mother die a horrible death over and over. He never knows exactly when he'll be taking a trip:

Sometimes it feels as though your attention has wandered for just an instant. Then, with a start, you realize that the book you were holding, the red plain cotton shirt with white buttons, the favorite black jeans and the maroon socks with an almost-hole in the heel, the living room, the about-to-whistle tea kettle in the kitchen: all of these have vanished. You are standing, naked as a jaybird, up to your ankles in ice water in a ditch along an unidentified rural route…You've mislocated yourself again.

Henry eventually seeks help from a doctor who, he hopes, can cure him of his chrono-displacement. The condition seems to be a physical one (no H.G. Wells contraptions or gigawatt-tripping DeLoreans show up in these pages):

I think it's a brain thing. I think it's a lot like epilepsy because it tends to happen when I'm stressed, and there are physical cues, like flashing light, that can prompt it. And because things like running, and sex, and meditation tend to help me stay put in the present.

Niffenegger even allows Henry to visit himself in the past and engage himself in conversations and, briefly, a masturbatory sexual experience. The effect is funny and remarkably poignant at the same time:

I ponder my double. He's curled up, hedgehog style, facing away from me, evidently asleep. I envy him. He is me, but I'm not him, yet. He has been through five years of a life that's still mysterious to me, still coiled tightly waiting to spring out and bite. Of course, whatever pleasures are to be had, he's had them; for me they wait like a box of unpoked chocolates.

The Time Traveler's Wife is like one of those chocolates nestled in brown paper cups -- a rare literary confection that melts in your hand, your mouth and your head. Die-hard romantics will be savoring this one for years to come. | January 2004


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.