Tuesday, June 21, 2011

34. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffeneger

I actually resisted reading this book because it was such a bestseller and garnered the label "romance." I tend to eschew romance and romantic fiction, mostly because swooning ladies, knights in shining armor, and awkward sex scenes are not my idea of good literature. Everybody raving about it made me want to read it less. Well, finally, I caught it lying around my house. It turned out to belong to a friend of my sister's, and it just looked more interesting than anything on my shelf.

The Time Traveler's Wife indeed fits the romance genre better than the science fiction genre in which it is also sometimes placed, but with a caveat-this is GOOD romance. I know, I never thought I'd hear myself saying it either. The time-traveling gimmick makes for exquisite plotting and the back-and-forth through time makes for a compelling tension between Clare, the time traveler's chrono-linear wife, and Henry, her chrono-displaced husband. Niffenegger carefully orchestrates episodes of Clare's and Henry's lives in a fitting, although not always chronological order. Most of the book follows Clare's chronological life, with Henry popping in at odd moments, sometimes more than one of him from different time periods. Both Clare's and Henry's viewpoints are used.

Clare first meets Henry as a child, a strange naked man who keeps appearing in the Meadow near her house and then disappearing. He gives her a list of dates upon which he will appear and she meets him with clothes and food. As she grows older, she falls in love with him and continually attempts to seduce him, but he resists, not wanting to warp her childhood. When she is a teenager, he confesses that someday they will be married. The list of dates runs out, and Clare will not meet Henry again for two years. This time, they meet in real time, which, for Henry, is his first encounter with Clare. Fate runs its course and the two are married, nestled in a close-knit world of dysfunctional families and generous friends. The city of Chicago plays a notable role in the novel as well, and natives will probably enjoy references to local landmarks.

At times, the love between Clare and Henry seems too good to be true, but the outer tension of Henry's periodic disappearances keep it interesting. They struggle with conceiving a child, because they all seem to have inherited Henry's time-traveling gene and time-travel out of the womb and back, causing a series of miscarriages. While Niffenegger's time-traveling is an interesting concept, Henry's involuntary time travel tends to pull him back to events in his own and Clare's childhood, her greatest invention is the love story. She uses careful descriptions of physical touching, feelings, even sexual acts, but avoids the painful nitty-gritty that makes me recoil from most modern romance. Clare and Henry seem comfortable with each other and each other's bodies, they are convincingly attracted to one another, and convincingly wretched when apart.

I would recommend The Time Traveler's Wife as a good read to anyone, I think it has a wide appeal, and while the romance label may be appropriate, it could be hurting how more literary readers regard it.

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