May 14, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler's Wife isn't usually the kind of book I gravitate to. It has a the indefinable haze of Today-Show-approved-quality-chick-lit about it. I'm a staunchly no-chick-lit kind of gal, so I surprised myself a few weeks ago when I picked it up a the library after listlessly wandering around for half an hour. I'm really happy I did - my anti-chick-lit snobbery learned a valuable lesson in chilling out.

Audrey Niffenegger's first novel is sort of a surprise. It feels, even as you're reading it, quite breezy, swinging along as it does. But every so often, Niffenegger allows shadows to cross over the work - not so surprising, given that she wrote The Time Traveler's Wife while simultaneously working on her second book, The Incestuous Sisters, a beautifully illustrated book about, yes, three incestuous sisters. 

Niffenegger's real triumph is how deftly she manages time. Her protagonist, Henry DeTamble is a CPD - (a person with chrono-displacement, a genetic abnormality which causes the patient to time travel in much the same way that epilepsy causes seizures). He meets Clare Abshire, who will become his wife, when she is six years old and he is in his thirties (in his present, when he meets the six year old Clare, his wife, Clare, is pregnant with their daughter). 

It would be easy for an author to drop any one of this story's chronological threads, given that Niffenegger moves Henry back and forth through the past, present and future seemingly at random, all the while building the narrative logically if one lets go of traditional time. For example, although Clare has known Henry since she was six, he meets her for the first time when she is twenty and he is twenty-eight. This is a minor example of how Niffenegger manipulates the chronology, and all to good effect. By the end of the book, all of the pieces fall into place inevitably, as the reader has been given glimpses of the inevitable throughout. In this way, Niffenegger places the reader firmly in Henry's shoes - the pieces of his life align only at the end of the book, in what is very close to hindsight. 

The Time Traveler's Wife is a romance, it's true. But it is quiet and matter-of-fact. There is little of the "romance" about it. Similarly, while Niffenegger created a disease for Henry to explain how and why he time travels, it's a foundational element, this bit of science fiction, very quietly driving the book. In the end, I would say that The Time Traveler's Wife is speculative - it speculates on the nature of time and it's elasticity; it speculates on what kind of love could survive the strain of chronological displacement, an appropriate concern for moderns who never seem to have enough time; ultimately, it speculates on what kind of life could be lead when even the facade of control cannot exist. It's a touching book and an affecting book and chick-lit or not, it was absolutely worth the read.