The Time Traveler’s Wife
Audrey Niffenegger
Harvest Books: 2003
546 pp. $14.00
ISBN: 015602943X


Audrey Niffenegger published her first traditional novel in 2003. Her book, The Time Traveler’s Wife, has earned wide acclaim: it’s a New York Times bestseller, one of People’s top ten books of 2003, and a book club pick on the Today Show.

Her book is quite an accomplishment for a person who has, until now, produced visual novels that would run a mere ten copies. Niffenegger is a professor at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts' MFA program. She teaches for the Interdisciplinary Arts department, mostly focusing on classes dealing with making books from scrap.

There have been some interesting side stories to the novel’s success: Niffenegger dyed her hair red (the same as her female lead’s) in celebration of her novel's completion, and famous couple Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt have reportedly optioned film rights—though it’s yet to be seen if the pair will play the destined couple in Niffenegger’s book.

The Story Without Spoilers:


Henry DeTamble is the time traveler. We know him at many phases of his life, though not necessarily chronologically. Henry suffers from a disorder that causes him to travel through time involuntarily.

Clare Abshire is the wife. We know her through many phases of her life and most of the time we are introduced to her chronologically: as child, student, artist, and wife.

Plot Information:

The Time Traveler’s Wife is set in Chicago over a period of many years with a smattering of punk and art references. We meet the characters through an alternating first-person narration of the book. Clare always knew that she’d be with Henry; she met the adult Henry while she was only a child. Henry didn’t meet Clare until he was older. She went to his library looking for a librarian, when someone suggested she speak with him. When she realized the librarian she was speaking to was the Henry she knew as a child she excitedly greeted him, leaving him to wonder how he knew the young woman.

There are interesting dynamics created by the unusual plot. For example, when Clare first meets Henry he had knowledge of their future life but she knew nothing of it. However, when Clare and Henry meet in real time she knows about his future even though he hasn’t lived that phase of his life yet. There are also many conflicts to resolve along the way: dating, meeting friends, or visiting family is always a bit suspenseful. Once married, the pair is unsure if they will be able to have children or not. They also try to resolve how Henry came to be afflicted with this disorder. While trying to discover the root cause they work with doctors to see if there is a cure. The biggest mystery for the reader is to see if Henry will be able to live a normal life or if something horrible happens to him while he is traveling through time.

Analysis of the work:

This is an interesting work in many ways. From a literary perspective, Niffenegger was able to use many interesting devices due to the unique nature of her story. Because of Henry’s frequent time traveling, the story is not told in chronological order. This foreshadowing is natural, so the audience learns bits about the lives of the characters from Henry’s time travel. The reader learns facts before Clare in some cases and before Henry in others. It allows the reader to be a detective and piece together information that would not be available if the story was told strictly from a real time-chronological order.

The shared first-person narrative allows the reader to get to know both Clare and Henry in a way that a single first-person narrative or a third-person narrative could not accomplish. This narrative also gives the reader a better understanding of the relationship between the pair. This book is a love story, and quite romantic, but it is also much more realistic because the reader does see the relationship from both party’s perspectives. Clare does like to be alone sometimes and Henry can be irritating and rude, but it’s okay because the characters seem entirely realistic, and real people do have traits that aren’t perfect.

The science behind the story is nearly impossible to accept, but the story is so compelling that once the reader accepts the premise the storytelling truly carries the novel. Niffenegger’s choice of location also tempers the far-fetched science. Having lived in Chicago, she has a thorough understanding of the environment. She places this very fanciful story in a very concrete place. It allows the reader to have something real to ground the story in.

Finally, Niffenegger also makes philosophy interesting to the average reader. Her story is a metaphor dealing with metaphysical issues of identity, time, fate, and destiny. Is one really the same person over completely different periods of time? Does time run in only one direction? Is there such a thing as predestination or free will? This book will be interesting to those who like these kinds of questions as well as those who just want to read a good story.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is an extraordinary book. This could possibly be one of the most unique love stories I’ve ever read.

The book focuses almost entirely on the two central characters: Henry DeTamble and Claire Abshire.

Henry has a rare genetic condition: he time-travels within his own lifetime, into his own past and future. However, time traveling is not a fun and amusing condition. It is a disease that he has no control over and it throws him into dangerous and possibly fatal situations.

Because Henry cannot control his time traveling and can disappear at almost any time and reappear in an unknown place completely naked and lost, Henry is always on the move, always alert.

Claire's life, however, follows one straight line interrupted every now and then by a meeting with Henry as he reappears in her life.

Surprisingly, Claire is an incredibly patient woman. She suffers when Henry is gone, but she remains always strong and hopeful. She is strong for herself but also because Henry needs her to be. She accepts Henry’s problem without a second thought because she believes so strongly in their love.

This book is so beautiful and touching because their love is so real. It made me cry about four times because their love is so powerful and true. It is one of the most insightful looks at relationships I have ever read. The Time Traveler's Wife is a very moving book.

The Time Traveler's Wife is a work that I ended up reading due to a quest of mine to read all the commonly read books of the day. Notice that these are not necessarily the best of the day, although they are for the most part not the worst, either. So in some ways, this book had a strike against it before I started reading it, because I was reading it wondering if it deserved its popularity. I wonder how I would feel if I came upon this as an obscure title buried in a thrift store, if I would view it as an eclectic and odd little story.

Theoretical questions aside, I view this book as very okay. It is also very middle brow, and in fact I don't know if truly understood the term "middle brow" until I read this book. The writing style is fairly complex, but at no point does it become experimental or challenging. The literary and cultural references are various and studied, but are not specifically insightful or deep.

This especially glaring given the entire point and purpose of the work: the story of time travel is one that is obviously given to both stylistic experimentation and a challenge to a person's standard mindset. However, the book seems to dodge the larger philosophical issues, if it is even aware enough of them to dodge them. Instead, the book is more a standard romance story with a gimmick attached. All the time travel does make for an interesting story, and some of the twists, turns, hints and foreshadowings that the author manages are entertaining. But that doesn't change the substance of the story, which is a fairly conventional romance between two characters who I didn't feel particularly interested in or sympathetic towards. Henry and Clare, the eponymous pair, are a pair of young bourgeois whose life outside of time traveling and its traumas consists of art shows, expensive food, and their bourgeois jobs.

And so the presentation of the story may be interesting, but its content is not.

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