Another Friday, another book review. As I continue my foray into what would be considered more mainstream fiction I decided to pick up Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife from the library. In case you haven’t read this book and missed the movie, the premise is pretty simple. It’s about a man, Henry DeTamble, who uncontrollably travels through time, the journeys he takes as well as his wife’s experiences both before and after they’re together.
Clare meets Henry when she’s six years old as he time travels into her world after they are already married. While his experience in life is to not meet her, know her or even guess at the existence of her until the age of 28 his 36 year old self had introduced himself to her at the tender age of 6. From that point until she turns 18 (her birthday to be exact) her life is filled with visits from Henry. Dates he has handily been able to grasp ahead of time and give her so she can have clothes and food for him when he lands in her time, in the field near her childhood home.
If you’re scratching your head and going “Say, what?” I can assure you- you’re not alone. Take comfort and solace (or not) in the knowledge I felt the same way. The only possible way for the above list to have been formed was if Clare herself wrote it, kept it until she got older, then gave it to Henry when they came together as adults so he could then, in turn, look at it and give the young Clare the next date of their meeting. And yes, the author actually states this is what happened as well as somehow making it into a joke about how circular it was and how it really shouldn’t exist but did “somehow” anyway. The explanation stopped there.
The idea of dealing with the paradox of time travel head on I found to be intriguing initially until it wasn’t handled well. At all. Clare’s time moves linearly while Henry’s doesn’t. Well, not exactly. He ages linearly while he travels to different spaces of time line often giving us glimpses of Clare’s life growing up as well as his own. He, very rarely, jumps forward in time but he does do it (through the last several chapters he seems to continuously be doing this). This wouldn’t be such a problem, oh it still would be but not horribly so IF the author hadn’t continuously harped on the notion of free will. Yes, the author wrote a book about time travel where everything happens upon a circular premise with Henry de facto shaping everything but it somehow doesn’t matter because things AREN’T fated. He actually feels responsible to that ethos and so tries to not tell people things about the future. Except Clare about how they get married. And Gomez about how they’ll be each other’s best men. And about lottery numbers and the stock market.
Another issue I had was the style of the story telling:
…There are no windows, only blue carpet and a long, polished black table surrounded by padded swivel chairs. There’s a whiteboard and a few Magic Markers, a clock over the door, and a coffee urn with cups, cream, and sugar ready beside it. Kendrick and I sit at the table, but Henry paces around the room. Kendrick takes off his glasses and massages the sides of his small nose with his fingers….
The problem I have with the above section is that listing style and those abrupt sentences happen all the time and they happen in both Henry and Clare’s mind. There is little difference in voice of the protagonists and the observations of each character does little for your understanding of the emotional space the characters inhabit. When you might as well be reading Clare when it’s Henry, or vice versa, there’s really little to no emotional attachment one can gain from reading their thoughts.
Then there’s the matter of making omniscient statements. I know, I know, Henry can time travel so we can believe he can have an omniscient voice. I have a hard time swallowing that one anyway because, honestly, if the writing were really good and tight (which becomes even more important when you’re requiring a greater suspension of disbelief for the premise of your story) those statements wouldn’t exist and instead there would be clear references made to understand the how and why he could say whatever he said in an all knowing tone about stuff that hasn’t happened yet. Omniscience is something I view as appropriate in the voice of the narrator but ultimately such phrasing doesn’t work when it comes from the character. I usually see it employed to reference something that’s going to happen- but if it’s going to happen then the reader should find out about it THEN, so in this instance it’s supposed to work as a hook and it takes you out of the character’s POV which is actually what should keep you reading a story like this. It’s lazy writing, or bad editing but, either way, such ploys I look upon with a great deal of derision. This next excerpt is actually from Clare’s inner dialogue (*warning, spoiler material*):
Soon, for the first time in many months, we are making love without worrying about the consequences. Henry has caught the cold I had sixteen years ago. Four weeks later, Henry has had his vasectomy and I discover that I am pregnant for the sixth time.
The whole book is written in present tense language. It is not looking back upon events as though a memoir, PRESENT tense means you don’t go bandying about references to future dates unless you’re Henry and you saw whatever it is actually happen. But if that’s the case it should be clear he SAW it happen.
Sensation is also something rather left out which left me with the feeling of something falsely sweet, like Nutrasweet on my pallet trying to make me believe I was having sugar. It wasn’t sugar. I like sugar. I know sugar. I hate substitutes. This was one great big heaping bowl of Nutrasweet when all I wanted was a spoonful of sugar. It raunched out my stomach and left me feeling rather dirty for even thinking this would be the little bit of natural sweet I wanted.
In a nutshell it was supposed to be a love story which didn’t make me cheer or even believe in the characters’ love until the end. Honestly, I should care about these people well before page 406 (yes, I looked to see what page it was when I noticed I actually wanted to find out what happened next). There were some great thoughts in there but none were fleshed out or completed excepting an ending which didn’t work with the “rules” Niffenegger had set up, a character who believed in Marxism- the Marxism having NOTHING to do with the story (nor was it even fleshed out to deal with it effectively and intelligently), and a love story which was wholly unbelievable.
Perhaps this would have been brilliant if the most fleshed out areas of the story weren’t describing Clare doing a portrait and instead were about the scenery around the characters, or at least their emotional landscape. Instead it came off as an artist’s attempt at sounding like Heller except in a more pompous and yet ignorant way. Wholly disappointing.