I recently finished reading Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” This is one that I genuinely expected to like. I remember vaguely hearing good things about it, the premise is good, and I like sci-fi that’s well grounded in reality. But this book – it just had so many problems.
A basic plot synopsis: Henry has a condition which causes him to spontaneously time travel, particularly at moments of high stress, to various moments in the past and sometimes future that have particular emotional significance to him. He materializes nude and sticks around for some minutes/hours/days, then returns to his normal life. His life becomes all entangled with his one true love Clare (good name choice!), and they try to work around his disability to live a normal life, with the stable job and the children and the house in the suburbs.
This all sounds very interesting, but it actually isn’t, really. The thing about time travel stories is that they are laced through with questions about free will, cause and effect, our ability to change our own lives. The book is aware of this, and its universe is constructed along the following lines: things happen in a certain way and can’t be changed. If there is anything resembling free will, it is largely an illusion. No one is forcing you to make the choices that you do, but they are inevitable – you will make them because that is how the course of your life has directed you. This is a totally valid direction for a time travel story to take. After all, from a physicist’s point of view, time is a double-headed arrow. Maybe the structure of time is set – it is the way it is and it can’t be changed. Ted Chiang has explored this concept in various ways at least three times – all of them, even the shortest, are more interesting than this novel. However, I think it is a concept that bears grappling with.
I can buy that Henry, with his double memories from both sides of conversations with himself, might simply accept that the way things happen is the way they happen – he can’t hope to do anything other than what he will do. There is one scene where Henry explicitly addresses his inability to change the future – he was physically unable to say the words to stop his father from walking in on him at an embarrassing moment, and it is mentioned that he was physically unable to say the words that would have saved some random girl’s life when she dies in an accident. This scene occurs when he was fifteen, and nothing remotely like it ever happens again. He is never unable to say or do something differently than how it happened the first time he experienced it, and he never even tries.
But why should Clare accept all this so easily? She learns as a child that she will marry Henry in the future, and she never questions that this is true. (Also, Clare learns that Henry will be her husband not because he tells her, but because of a magical Ouija board. It is never mentioned again.) Even when she doesn’t seem to like young Henry (an earlier version of the man who will later visit her in her past), she loves him because she knows she will love him in the future. She never questions the fact that her destiny is set in stone. She’s never upset about it, never tries to act against it just to prove that she has free will. She must have thoughts about all this, but we never see them. Clare and Henry discuss free will all of once, when Clare is 13 and Henry 35. This scene is from Henry’s POV. He has just asked Clare what she believes in (God, an absolutely determined universe, or meaningless chaos).
A year ago she would have said God without hesitation. In ten years she will vote for determinism, and ten years after that Clare will believe that the universe is arbitrary, that if God exists he does not hear our prayers, that cause and effect are inescapable and brutal but meaningless. And after that? I don’t know.
But we never see Clare develop these thoughts! She never even seems to think about it again. This passage sounds like she becomes a nihilist, but, no, that doesn’t happen. She is frustrated and despairing at 33, but not because of a perceived or real lack of free will. She despairs because she can’t carry Henry’s baby to term – which doesn’t have anything to do with the central fact in her life that she is unable to affect her own destiny.
This passage also highlights another issue I had: at 35, Henry has never yet talked to Clare when she is older than he is. And he never does. Clare is 8 years younger than Henry in real time, but it’s established that he can travel 50 years in either direction. But he never runs across her when he’s 33 and she’s 52. Why? Why doesn’t he? Because it would be weird if the age gap ran the other way? Because Clare must always be young and perfectly beautiful whenever she and Henry meet?
Clare is 20 and Henry 28 when they meet (from his perspective). Clare has known and loved Henry for most of his life. But as for Henry, he has spent the first decade of adulthood partying, sleeping with many women, drinking, doing drugs, breaking hearts. He also somehow gets an incongruous degree in library science while he’s at it. He’s maybe not abusive towards any of the women he dates, but it doesn’t sound like he is caring or courteous or goes out of his way to be a decent human being either. Then, just when he’s at the end of his twenties, might want to think about settling down, this abnormally beautiful 20 year old appears and throws herself at him, ready to be a devoted and faithful spouse for the rest of her life. Clare, from her perspective, last saw Henry when he took her virginity at 18 and has been heroically faithful to him this entire time, waiting to meet this cad who will eventually turn into the comparatively gentlemanly fellow that she knows. Okay, I guess she’s not entirely faithful – she sleeps with one guy one time, and all that did was teach her the lesson that sex with anyone other than her one true love is bad sex.
I want to be clear on something: I do in fact believe in love and romance. I even believe in young love – and in first loves being lasting. How can I not? I recently married my first and only love – we met when we were 18 and married after staying together for 8 years. But I don’t believe we were fated to be together. We had to learn how to be good together. We had to figure out what we each wanted from life and how to make our separate needs line up. It didn’t just happen, and it didn’t have to happen that way. And if I was transported back in time and got to be with my husband when he was 18 again, I would be a little sad because he wouldn’t be the man who built a life with me. Henry looks at Clare in exactly the same way whether she’s 33 and just suffered from her sixth miscarriage or whether she’s 18 and about to start her adult life. Nothing that she accomplishes, nothing that they share together in their married life matters – she’s just a thing to be loved, not a person to evolve together with.
Besides these large issues, the book is riddled with many small flaws. I don’t usually write notes in the margins, but I did this time, just to point out all the ridiculous problems to someone other than my husband. But you probably don’t really need me to innumerate these points – Goodreads reviews have got it covered there. I’ll just leave you with what must be among the worst analogies in fiction. Is it possible to take a book seriously when it contains the following passage:
Clare smiles a tiny wicked smile and thrusts her hips back and forth a couple of times. I now have an erection that is probably tall enough to ride some of the scarier rides at Great America without a parent.
It just…it brings some absurd and not sexy images to mind, doesn’t it?