Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.
The Time-Traveler’s Wife is full of surprises, but three of them are exceptional.
The first comes a few pages into the novel, when you discover that the titular time-traveler isn’t some aging jock reminiscing about the glory days or a widower who often gets lost in memories of happier times, but a man who can literally travel through time.
“Oh,” you say upon this realization, “Judging from the cover and the blurb on the back, I thought this was contemporary fiction or romantic drama, and that the phrase ‘time-traveler’ was metaphorical. But apparently not.” So you shift gears and adjust yourself to the fact that you are reading a sci-fi book.
The second surprise comes 100 pages later, when you realize that The Time-Traveler’s Wife is an contemporary fiction / romantic drama, in addition to being a sci-fi novel as well. “That’s certainly ambitious,” you think. “But there’s no way the author will be able to pull it off successfully.”
The third surprise is that, somehow, she does.
Henry De Tamble is the time-traveler, albeit an unwilling one. At seemingly random moments in his life he is abruptly flung to some other date — usually in the past, occasionally in the future — where he arrives, naked, onto or close to some scene relevant to his own life. Sometimes he winds up in his own house, and whiles away a few hours hanging out with a younger version of himself. Sometimes he goes far enough back to visit his own mother, who died when he was a boy. Usually he goes back and meets up with one Clare Abshire, the woman he will eventually marry.
He rendezvous with Clare so often that her entire childhood comes to revolve around his visits. Then, iat the age of 20, she bumps into the real-time Henry and, recognizing him as the man who will some day become her husband, invites him out for drinks. One thing leads to another, and the two are eventually hitched.
I’m a sucker for time-travel stories, but only those that get it right. By that I mean that the story needs to have an internally consistent set of rules that the universe adheres to, even when folks are popping into the past and theoretically influencing their own present. Sadly, very very few time-travel stories have met my high standards — Twelve Monkeys is honestly the only one that leaps to mind. In most, the sort of causal loop described above (Henry and Clare get married because Clare knows that she will eventually marry Henry) would pretty much torpedo the entire premise.
But author Audrey Niffenegger has done the near-impossible with The Time-Traveler’s Wife, writing a near-flawless time travel novel that sets ground rules and then scrupulously sticks to them. I would have liked it for this alone, and the fact that the literary romantic fiction half is pretty damned good too is icing on the cake.
Best of all, this is the kind of book that can be safely enjoyed by pretty much anyone: those who typically steer clear of sci-fi will appreciate it as contemporary literature; those who favor Greg Bear over Don DeLillo will groove on Niffenegger’s intriguing and well-executed ideas. In fact, I can see The Time-traveler’s Wife becoming my default suggestion when asked for a recommendation, and one that I foresee loaned out more often than it sits upon my shelf.
Counterpoint! The Queen’s succinct review: “The frickin annoying love story ruined the book for me.” Such a romantic, that gal o’ mine.