We all know the booklover who won’t watch the film adaptation of their favourite book because it couldn’t possibly live up to their hopes. But did you know it also happens in reverse? The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of my favourite films, and I put off reading the book on which it was based for a long, long time. Until now, in fact.
Before it was a masterpiece staring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, The Time Traveler’s Wife was Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel, first published back in 2003. That makes this year twenty years since its release, high time I got over myself and gave it a go, wouldn’t you say?
It’s basically a Mobius strip romance, with some science fiction and fantasy mixed in. Henry is a librarian with an unsettling genetic disorder that causes him to travel through time at random. The titular wife, Clare, is an artist who lives through time in a linear way, like the rest of us. Henry meets Clare at the beginning of the novel, and he has never seen her before – but she’s seen him many times. In fact, she’s already in love with him.
How? Well, bear with me, because this gets a bit complicated. Future Henry has been travelling back through time since Clare was a little girl. He often finds himself in her backyard, where they talk and eat picnics. Henry has told Clare that, in the future, they’re in love – in fact, she’s his wife. But Present Henry hasn’t started doing that yet, when he first meets Clare, so… who’s to say where the love story really “begins”?
I gave up on trying to keep track of the timeline of their interactions (and I’d suggest you do the same). I focused instead on how old each of the relevant parties were for each encounter – Niffenegger helpfully provides that information at the beginning of each chapter. If it helps going in, The Time Traveler’s Wife seems to roughly follow Clare’s linear experience, living from childhood to old age with no deviations, as most of us do. Henry comes and goes as the plot sees fit.
I probably shouldn’t spend too much time delving into all the logistics of time travel in The Time Traveler’s Wife – otherwise what would be the point in reading the book? But I will say this: I am so, so glad to read a time travel book that finally addresses the Clothes Issue. Henry can’t take anything with him when he travels through time, so he shows up wherever he’s going naked as the day he was born. It makes for a lot of interesting fodder for the novel, and Henry’s main motivation almost anywhere he goes is finding clothes, food, and somewhere safe to hide.
Yep, time travel ain’t all beer and skittles, but Henry and Clare find ways to make it work for them. For instance, they play the lottery and the stock-market, and make enough for Clare to live comfortably as an artist while Henry’s barely hanging onto a low-paid library job. Thankfully, Niffenegger spares us all the tiresome hand-wringing about the morality of it, too. It’s a good idea, it makes sense to game the system, and there’s too much going on in The Time Traveler’s Wife to worry about the protagonists getting just desserts.
There are a lot of rapid shifts in The Time Traveler’s Wife – in time (duh) but also in tone. One minute, a thirty-something Henry is living in domestic bliss with age-appropriate Clare. Next, he’s helping an adolescent Clare assault the man who tried to rape her on a date. Then, he’s trying to convince a doctor that his time travel is real, not just a schizophrenic delusion. And presto, he’s engaging in a bit of mutual masturbation with his teen self. It’s at times erotic, ridiculous, philosophical, emotive, gross, sweet, poetic, violent – Niffenegger really threw everything at the wall.
If I had to try to distill it, I’d say the two big Problems in The Time Travellers Wife are: (1) the issue of free will, and whether Clare had any choice in their romance, and (2) Clare’s difficulties getting pregnant as a result of Henry’s disorder. Content warning for miscarriage and baby loss – Clare loses pregnancies over and over because the foetuses inherit Henry’s genetic code, causing them to time travel out of her womb. So, yeah, it’s heavy – as well as being sweet and romantic. I told you! Tone shifts!
So, if you’re looking closely at the latter, The Time Traveler’s Wife can be read as a metaphor for the ways in which women have suffered in the patriarchal institution of marriage. Niffenegger said that she wrote the book as an allegory about failed relationships, but I think you could read just about anything into this book if you squint.
I did take a couple of issues with the novel, ones that didn’t seem to pop up in the film. First, there’s this weird side plot about Henry’s ex-lover Ingrid, and her friend Celia. They pop up from time to time, but don’t really seem to do anything to advance the plot…? I have no idea why Niffenegger stuck them in there; maybe she’d promised a couple of besties she’d name characters after them, or something.
Second, Henry and Clare are quite snooty and pretentious, but – and this is key – simultaneously not progressive at all in their politics. They make some noise towards the beginning of The Time Traveler’s Wife about Marxism and a worker’s rights revolution, but then seem to forget all about it. Plus, they casually drop slurs (not That One, but still) and engage in some pretty harmful stereotyping behaviour. Here’s this bohemian artist and her time-travelling partner who read poetry and go to punk concerts, but there’s absolutely nothing deeper to it than aesthetic. I’m not sure if that was intentional on Niffenegger’s part or not.
Those issues didn’t stop The Time Traveler’s Wife going on to become a best-seller (perhaps I’m the only one who noticed). It got a big boost from Niffenegger’s buddy Scott Turow giving the book a shout-out on NBC’s Today, and then organically from a selection on Richard & Judy’s Book Club in the UK. It was named Amazon’s Book Of The Year in 2003.
In the end, I think the main problem with The Time Traveler’s Wife is exactly what I predicted, and exactly why I resisted reading it: I love the film. It’s like I looked for problems while reading the book because it couldn’t possibly be as good as the movie. The story is just so much smoother on screen, and those tone shifts are evened out, and as a result, the impact is far greater and more devastating. Plus, the ending is better – far less twee! So, read the book if you must, it’s pretty good… but watch the movie if you know what’s good for you.
P.S. No, I haven’t watched the TV series. I probably will, at some point, but see above – I’ll just end up poking holes in it for not being a frame-for-frame recreation of the film.
P.P.S. Apparently, there’s a sequel coming – Niffenegger said on Twitter that it’s called The Other Husband and it’ll be out sometime this year. Stay tuned!
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Time Traveler’s Wife:
- “I dreaded every minute until I finally had enough and time traveled to another book selection!” – Kay Kay H.
- “Clare grows up knowing she will one day marry Henry because grown up Harry from the future told her. Then she meets Henry in his present and tells him they are going to fall in love and get married. That’s it. If it wasn’t for the time travel device, they would be the most boring couple to have an entire novel written about their relationship.” – beth
- “If you like pretentious, poorly plotted soft porn with shallow, unlikable characters and a touch of pedophilia, this is the book for you. Otherwise give it a pass.” – Lyn Craven
- “If Lolita met The Notebook, this novel would be the outcome. And that’s not a compliment.” – Carolyn