Conveying true love in our cynical wed and bolt world has become an increasingly rare feat in the literary genre, but first-time novelist Audrey Niffenegger unearths this skill with extraordinary finesse in The Time Traveler's Wife. As sci-fi as the title sounds, this is not a Trekky novel; nor is it truly classifiable as a romance. The relationship and events are too sincerely portrayed for a book ironically founded on the impossible.
The author cleverly disguises this impossibility by presenting the element of science fiction as an ordinary thing, making time travel just as much your reality as the main characters'. The result is an absorbing, intoxicating accomplishment that allows the oddball nature of husband Henry's involuntary time traveling to play second fiddle to his passion for his wife Clare.
As the narration alternates in first person between the two main characters, it would follow that the reader would reap the benefits of an omniscient perspective. But the passages jump from 1976 to 2006 and back again, creating a disorienting effect, losing you in a way all great works of art should. The reader's disorientation is fitting--it parallels Henry's limbo state, slipping in and out of time.
Henry's life memory is a nonlinear curse and simultaneous blessing; his dilemma serves the greater purpose of generating the philosophical undercurrent of the text. His ability to hopscotch through time eventually implies that past choices and their subsequent repercussions cannot be changed, even by a time traveler physically revisiting the event. Reconciling yourself to this theory is frustrating yet necessary. As Henry has no control over when or where he goes, he often ends up re-experiencing traumatic life events he cannot alter, such as his mother's fatal car accident, over and over again.
Henry usually vanishes without warning when under stress, leaving Clare in a perpetual state of waiting and wondering as he is catapulted into his past and occasionally his future. It is important to recognize upfront that Clare is actually the central figure of the novel, as the title quietly suggests, because her challenge of waiting was Niffenegger's muse for the story. Niffenegger expresses a timeless love in a nitty-gritty believable fashion, where two people stay united despite the uncontrollable forces acting upon their relationship. And Clare's unshakeable belief and patience is, sappily enough, the glue that spins them back together through an inordinate amount of drama.
Though the characters remain powerless with the unusual knowledge of their destinies, there is a whisper of wisdom in how they stay unaffected living each anticipated day when it finally arrives. Since Henry and Clare deal with this concept of blessed yet damned foresight all the time, rereading the book is almost a necessary second illumination, like watching The Usual Suspects a second time.
There is rumor of making The Time Traveler's Wife itself into a blockbuster film because of the acclaim it has received--a saddening prospect as I doubt Hollywood could do justice to the book. This has, however, given rise to a new favorite pastime of mine, my own proof of the degree to which I care for these two characters: debating over which actors would play Henry and Clare best. (As it stands I envision Cate Blanchett's poise and depth perfect for Clare and Jude Law aptly representing Henry's eccentricity).
Perhaps Niffenegger's greatest triumph beyond capturing a sense of the strange in life is how easily readers grow attached to her hero and heroine for their imperfections and complexities. Her strong characters humanize the otherwise unrealistic surrealism in the story. Reading The Time Traveler's Wife is like experiencing it firsthand, and it is a painful goodbye when the last page is turned. Don't be alarmed if you find yourself searching for qualities of Henry and Clare in everyone you encounter including yourself--after you adjust to life without the book. Try to refrain from settling for the would-be movie instead; this is a book to remind you why you love to read, a skewed fairytale for even the bitterest skeptics on love.