When Clare is six, she meets 35-year-old, time-traveler Henry. In Henry’s present, he’s happily married to Clare. Oddly enough, he’s happily married to Clare only because he met her when she was six. Strange yet? When Henry continues to visit Clare through the age of 18, they form a bond, and Clare knows that she will eventually marry Henry. Causality says that it’s impossible to avoid. So when 20-year-old Clare meets 28-year old Henry, the Henry from her present, she’s known him, or a version of him, all her life, and he’s never even met her. Strange yet?
The book is strange, period. Usually, issues of causality give me a headache (try reading Leo Frankowski’s Conrad’s Time Machine), though oddly enough, the issue of causality is only peripheral to the story. More or less, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a love story, a particularly poignant and heart-wrenching one, though it throws in some sexual oddities, apparently just for the hell of it. How does a happily-married, 35-year-old Clare react when her 43-year-old husband time-travels (it’s involuntary) and sleeps with her 18-year-old self? She liked it at 18, certainly. Issues of continuity of consciousness are prevalent as well, as much of not more than issues of causation.
It’s sad, too, but predictably, since readers somewhat know the plot from the beginning; the purpose, then, is to illuminate how things unfold, and the emotional ramifications of those things. When I first started reading, and I got to headings like “Wednesday, February 9, 2000 (Clare is 28, Henry is 36)” followed shortly by “Thursday, September 29, 1977 (Clare is 6, Henry is 35),” I thought to myself that perhaps it was going to be a mess of a book. While I’m not quite sure I can wrap my head around the idea of a block universe (which this book uses, along with movies like Terminator 2: essentially, everything in past, present, and future happens at once, so things in the past can hinge upon things from the future, which recursively rely on things from the past. In a linear model of time, that would be impossible), the book does become more clear in its timeline as the novel goes on.
This is Audrey Niffenegger’s first book. She’s actually an MFA, not a writer, and while I do enjoy her prose, I notice telltale signs that this is a debut work. First of all, she enjoys dropping foreign phrases, musical history, and other esotery somewhat randomly in the text. Second, some of the sex is strangely graphic, which doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. She makes some tenuous connection between passionate physicality and the mechanics of time travel (or “Chrono-Displacement”). Her prose is so beautiful at times, even leading up to a moment of intimacy, and then she drops words like “cock” and I think to myself that maybe she should have thought about tone a bit more.
All in all, this is a powerful work, the sort that keeps you thinking about it for hours or days afterward. It telegraphs its own plot, but in such a way that the reader can only watch these events rumbling over the horizon like a roaring train, wishing otherwise but helpless as causality ties its characters to the tracks. Truly, as Scott Turow says, “To those who say there are no new love stories, I heartily recommend [this book].”