Monday, July 04, 2005

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The first night of reading this book, I put in my bookmark, turned off the light, and lay in the dark with a little smile on my face.

It takes a fair amount of clobber for a book to drive someone to tears. It takes a whole lot more to stuff them full of joy peas and happy beans. Have I ever known a book to fill me with giddy delight before? Not because it was funny, or clever, but because it was lovely.

When Clare first met Henry, she was six and he was thirty-six. When they married, she was twenty-two and he was thirty. Henry suffers from a disorder that makes him chronologically unstable; at times of high stress, when started, when doing nothing at all, he is flung about in time. Thus, Clare has known Henry all her life, yet when finally they meet in the present, she is a total stranger to him. From childhood, she knows that he's the love of her life, her future husband - he told her. It's inevitable. And while there's a wonderful, glorious, warm, tizzy, funny-in-the-tummy excitement as the time comes when they meet in the present and start their life together properly, there's also a creeping despair, as the forces that drove them together must tear them apart, as it has done, over, and over, again. There lives are so intricately intwined that imagining them apart, unreachable, the mind shies away.

For me, I fell in love with their relationship, particularly from Clare's perspective. To know someone so long, so intimiately is incredibly alluring, and holds all sorts of promises of comfort and trust, especially trust when one's partner has a habit of vanishing for unknown times to unknown times (to, as it turns out, your past, to watch over you as you are growing up, and going through those growing pains).

What extraordinary and yet normal lives they lead.

I can see why this book isn't in the speculative fiction section of any book stores (none that I've seen). Although genetically triggered time travel is an incredible science fiction, it isn't the heart of the book. Clare and Henry's beautiful and bizarre relationship fills every nook and cranny, and the time travel is incidental, a strange circumstance that while central, is almost an after thought when set next to the couple. It dominates their lives, but they're normal people. Henry vanishes just as partner's leave for work. It happens.

It's a wonderful look at relationships, all sorts of relationships. It occured to me, around the half-way point, that if I stopped writing protagonists who were hermits in extreme isolation, I could have this effect as well, all these dynamics, all these moments.

I think I rather like love stories.

Yet, I wasn't satisfied with the end. Did she live, or did she wait? No hint is given. Perhaps I am meant to decide, and after knowing them for a whole book, I'm inclined to think she waited, and waited, and waited. When married to a time traveler, who knows when he'll appear. But that outcome irks me to no end. Her entire life, all of it. When I flipped the last page, my first thought was that Niffenegger was rushed, or afraid, or just couldn't bear to go any further in that territory. It felt like a betrayal of sorts, given how all Clare's horrible and beautiful days had been laid bare before hand.

Alas, such a story can only be followed by mourning. It's already too late for me to meet my own time traveler.

Verdict: this story got under my skin, into my blood, and moved me. It's a beautiful thing, and you do yourself a disservice by not having it in your life.