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23 October 2005 @ 11:15 pm
The Time Traveller's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger  
This is less a review than a collection of my impressions upon finishing the book, adapted from my book journal. Probably of more interest to anyone who's already read it, although I've been careful to avoid any blatant spoilers. Overall I enjoyed this book a great deal and would recommend it to anyone who likes novels that explore relationships and the nature of life and, of course, time. This is not science fiction, but some interesting ideas about time travel are presented.

This was the most interesting book. A fascinating premise--a man who can time travel, and the effects of that ability on his life, indeed how that ability shapes his life and that of the woman who becomes his wife. Niffenegger focuses, in particular, on the relationship he, Henry, has with his wife, Clare, whom he meets when she is a girl while time travelling. It is not, however, a book about time travel. Nor is it really about love, even though this is a love story. I'm having a hard time figuring out exactly what the book is about, all told. Nothing really emerged as a central point to it all, because even though she sets out certain philosophies or points of view about being and time (and yes, there are oblique and not so oblique references to Heidegger), about destiny and inevitability, about free will and choice, these ideas are not returned to often enough in relevant ways for you to feel any sense of revelation at the end of the book.

This is not a book of science fiction, so the "scientific" aspects of time travel take a back seat to the philosophical questions. It is interesting, however, how she establishes her own rules and conventions for time travel, although sometimes in a very obvious way (reminds me of contemporary vampire novels in that regard, choosing to follow or discard certain literary or folkloric conventions, such as effects of sunlight or religious artifacts, for instance). The disease concept as explanation for the time travel anomaly is interesting, especially the genetic component, but because the story is so focused on the individual, the wider social implications are not explored, such as why a time travel mutation even exists and what purpose it would serve.

She attempts a sort of mystery about the main plot point of the book, which doesn't really work because the "red herrings" are too obvious--dropped in so they stick out like broken limbs. She also chooses to reveal the how and when beforehand, which I'm not sure is the best way to handle it. It does create empathy with Henry, since it is through him that we learn this, but I initially was bothered by knowing it even though I was still moved when the denouement came. It was as if she wanted to set up the mystery, the questinoing,, but changed her mind about carrying it through to the end. Maybe because the character figures it out in advance, but he doesn't always reveal everything; in fact, he's very secretive about many things he learns while time travelling. Certain elements were plot points that just didn't fit with the character's voice and way of telling his story. Especially one chapter about the "cage" which seems like it was dropped in as an afterthought.

One major criticism is that Henry and Clare's voices are too similar--I was always conscious of the author's voice rather than two distinctive voices. She writes well and occasionally lyrically, but it is her voice we hear in the book, which creates an odd sort of distance between the reader and these characters. Although I was moved by the ending, it wasn't because I felt I had a lot emotionally invested in the characters.

Other criticisms:

She belaboured certain points about the time travel as if she weren't sure the reader would get it.

I didn't like the reliance on dates. I kept having to flip back to check the date that had just passed. It took me a while to figure out that the dates were chronological, ordered in linear fashion, although the time travel dates were random. For a long while there seemed to be no apparent pattern to the time travel episodes, or how they related to the linear progression of the present, and while she may have been emphasizing how this randomness felt to Henry, it did little to set up readerly expectations. And over time, we see that Henry does not always experience these episodes quite so randomly as at first appears, since he often knows to where and when he's going based on memory (time is presented as being fluid, with past, present and future moments co-existing, although not in a parallel sense). While some of the dates carry significance, there are generally no other cues to help remember what has been previously established about that date. By relying too much on the date itself, she doesn't give the reader other things to spark recognition, such as physical details or descriptions. There's no foreshadowing, no echoing, no allusions. There is repetition, but it's generally done in a somewhat clinical fashion.

I also disliked the way she distinguished between Henry and Clare's voices for similar reasons. Set off by name and a colon (Henry:), there was little else (as previously mentioned) to differentiate between the voices, as if that device precluded the necessity to make them sound distinct, to establish cues that signalled a change in voice.

Despite these criticisms, some of which may be attributable to a first novel, and the scope and ambition of the project, this was a book that kept me reading, kept me turning pages. She makes the characters interesting; you want to read their stories; you want to find out what happens to them. The last third of the book is more suspenseful, more compelling, more emotional than the first two-thirds, and much of those first two-thirds could have been judiciously edited to create a shorter, more overall provocative and compelling novel. On the whole, though, I found it an interesting, engaging read, and will certainly be interested to read more of her work.
the Empress of Delawarebluerooster on October 24th, 2005 01:45 pm (UTC)
Great review, thank you!

And thanks for taking on this group -- I always read & enjoy the reviews, though I haven't managed get it together to post one of my own yet.
meadowsweet9: halloween1meadowsweet9 on October 24th, 2005 04:17 pm (UTC)
Someone else took over the group, I believe. I just made a commitment to try to be more active. :-) Thanks for the kind words.

I would never get around to posting if I tried to write a formal review, so figured writing out the kind of thing I put in my journal would be something, anyway. It turned out much longer than usual, though! :-)