Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Time Traveler's Wife


This year, I'm making a serious effort to get through my monstrous "TBR pile." Whenever I finish another book from it, I ask a reader from my main blog, a Twitter follower, or a Facebook friend to be an "accountability buddy" of sorts by choosing which book from the pile I should read next. And the latest of them has been Pentimento, who suggested The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

The time traveler of the novel is Henry DeTamble, who is at the mercy of a "chrono-displacement disorder." Stressful situations or stimuli can get him popping out of the present and into the past or the future (but never more than about fifty years in either direction). That is how, in his thirties, he gets to meet his wife Clare back when she was only six years old . . . and why Clare is already in love with him the first time he meets her in his twenties. I found the first few chapters very romantic, sharing Clare's exhilaration at the way they are brought together against the craziest odds. But the magic lasted about one night for her and a few pages for me, before we both had to wake up and smell the present. For the Henry she meets is much younger than the man whom she fell in love with--and is not someone she might have given the time of day, had he been anyone else.

And the rest of the romance unfolds like The Gift of the Magi in reverse. Clare is willing to wait a few years until "her" Henry finally shows up, having slowly stumbled into all of her memories like an amnesiac slowly regaining his own . . . but those years change her, too--and not in ways that she would have imagined in her girlish daydreams. It turns out that Henry grows into the man she loved as a teenager because he felt terrible about being an uncertain husband who was often leaving her alone and because he had to watch her suffer several miscarriages while they tried to have a child. Young Clare got mature Henry on credit, so mature Clare must pay the bill.

Being a woman, I mostly read the love story from Clare's perspective. It was a little difficult for me to see things from Henry's point of view, and I found myself rereading many of the sections that he narrates, to get a better sense of how he sees things. I was most struck by his description of Clare as "a massive winning lottery ticket chunk of [his] future." Clare may have to pay interest on what she had thought was a free gift, but Henry's windfall seems to cost him only the lightest of taxes. Oh, but that's unfair of me to say. His chrono-displacement disorder, a lifelong source of suffering to him, is already a tax that he has been paying since his childhood--to some mysterious tax master whose ways he never gets to understand.

Or do I just assume the existence of this "tax master" because I am a believer? Henry and Clare don't seem to believe in a loving God Who is also a Person (much less Three Persons), and a great deal of this has to do with their having to live with Henry's crazy condition. Why would God create chrono-displaced people? Where is the free will in knowing that the future is as set as the past? Although young Clare is delighted to know that she will have mature Henry in the future, she bristles at the idea that other things about her are already set--like the way she drinks her coffee or the poets that she likes. And slowly she changes from a fervent Catholic girl into a woman who believes that the universe is completely chaotic. It's a change that somewhat mirrors Niffenegger's own departure from the Catholic Church at fifteen.

The Time Traveler's Wife is not a religious novel, but there's something about the blending of time travel and romance that always makes me think of Jesus and Mary. Maybe it's fallout from falling in love with The Terminator, which blends the Annunciation, the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, and the Flight into Egypt into one 80s Tech Noir package. A few years after it became my favourite film, I would get in trouble with Mrs. Darwin for describing Diana Gabaldon's Outlander as "Marian." (LOL!) I don't take my review back, for the same reason I don't take journal entries back (they're an accurate snapshot of a frame of mind); though if I had to rewrite that old post today, for publication elsewhere, it would be unrecognisable. What I do stand by, however, is my thesis that Gabaldon, whom I wasn't surprised to learn was also raised Catholic, could have imagined such a story only because she had thought deeply about how the Incarnation would have changed Mary. But Gabaldon's conclusion seems to be that Mary was taken out of time at the moment of her Fiat--that is, that Mary was perfectly normal until that point in her fourteenth year. I don't think we can quite square that with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, though I'd love to know what the Dominicans of the thirteenth century would say about it. In any case, I think I'm on safer ground pointing out the Easter Salubong imagery at the end of The Time Traveler's Wife.

Incidentally, this Easter was the first time I wondered why the Evangelists, particularly St. Luke and St. John, didn't include the Risen Jesus's reunion with His Mother. On Easter Saturday, I was fortunate enough to be at a votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary and hear that issue addressed in the homily. Father explained that there was no need to put it in the Gospels because it was already presumed. The early Christians would have clamoured to know exactly what the first witnesses saw, but they would have taken for granted that Jesus went out of His way to meet His Mother again. It wasn't very satisfying to me, but never mind. Perhaps it wasn't very satisfying to the young Niffenegger, either, which is why she wrote that final chapter, in which Henry is whole again and Clare is much older. Not that she gives us any more detail than Tradition does: what Henry and Clare say to each other at their reunion is also, for us, a mystery.

It's definitely the fantasy aspect of The Time Traveler's Wife that hooks everyone at the beginning. If you met your spouse when you were both adults, you'd be quite curious about what your spouse was like as a child. I'm sure we'd all also want to know what our younger selves would look like from outside ourselves and what they'd think of our older selves. But the novel has more going for it than just these fun gimmicks. Niffenegger's writing is simply beautiful. And I think that she expertly captures the sense of love's elusiveness, which I so strongly feel as a spinster. (I guess the happily married readers see it differently?) Despite the future being fixed, there are still a lot of surprises in the plot, as well as a resilient sense of hope . . . and the same moral about free will in the present that I've been trumpeting ever since I realised The Terminator has the same premise. And all these keep the book afloat, despite its lack of a rudder of faith.


Enbrethiliel said...


Melanie and I have also been talking about The Time Traveler's Wife on her blog; and in my latest comment, I wrote a little more about what I meant by "love's elusiveness."

In the context of marriage, well, I read it as an unmarried woman who is starting to think that she may be an old maid, and what struck me the most was the elusiveness of love, even after two become one flesh. I feel loneliest when something significant or amazing or just plain interesting happens to me and I remember I don't have a husband to share it with, and I was surprised to find that Clare has the same problem. She has Henry . . . but for slivers and chunks of time that she can't anticipate, she also doesn't have Henry. Their marriage is a paradoxical blend of certainty and unreliability that's both comforting and troubling to me, for the same reason: it hints that what I'm wishing for is just another version of what I currently have.

Emily J. said...

Wow, I read this book a long time ago, and didn't appreciate the marriage bit. Now I'm interested to pick it up again. That certainty and unreliability mix you're picking up on E seems to be a part of every marriage, I would guess.

Enbrethiliel said...


What was your main takeaway from the novel, Emily? =)

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Now I read it years and years ago. Maybe more than ten years? Pretty sure before I was married. At the time I read it my fascination was with the theological/sacramental questions the book raises: When Henry who is married to Clare meets Clare who is not yet married to Henry, and vice versa, are they married? Or are only the versions of them who remember saying the vows married? If you know with absolute certainty that one day you will be married to a person but you have not yet gone through with the ceremony in your own timeline, are you married, is it sinful to act as if you are married? A slightly different take on the time travel and marriage problem than the one Outlander took. Both Claire and Clare are rather nominal Catholics so they aren't all that invested in getting the theology of the sacrament right. Just enough to salve the bite of conscience. Me, I think that the character of marriage is such that you have to have made the vows yourself, not just be aware that a version of yourself will make the vows. So I think time travel is a sort of cop out device to get around the real question of fidelity.

The elusiveness of love is an interesting question. Of course you can still be lonely even when married. There's no guarantee that you're always going to be on the same page. And yet in my own experience there was a deep existential void in my life before I was married, a waiting, a hole, that has definitely been filled. It is about having someone to share things with. But the most significant thing that you share is a purpose outside yourselves: a family, a destination: heaven. The vocation of marriage is as much about having someone to share suffering with as to share interesting and amazing and significant things with. In my first year of marriage the thing that made me feel most married wasn't the amazing honeymoon but having Dom clean up after my morning sickness. What is most tragic in TTW is how isolated each of them is in their suffering. But I think you are right in pointing out that their marriage lacks that rudder of faith, which I think is the main way in which it differs from mine. Not the chrono-displacement trick, but the sense of marriage as a vocation and, well, just hope.

One of the things I liked best was Clare as artist. It wasn't until she started making art that she really felt real to me, an actor who exists outside of Henry's story with agency in her own right.

An elusive thought I'm not sure what to do with and am too tired to try to elaborate on: Henry and Clare as Odysseus and Penelope?

Enbrethiliel said...


Nice insights, Melanie! I've long seen "anticipating the wedding" as a mere rationalisation, but thinking of it as a form of time travel is something new. And yes, you're right that it remains a realisation even in that case. Only one Act shall ever get to be "once and for all."

Interestingly, even Clare and Henry think that their present selves should be the ones saying the vows, or else they wouldn't have had a second wedding for young Henry right after the first one with older Henry.

The art in the novel was wonderful. I liked the details about Clare's paper making, but my favourite part is Alba's insight into Joseph Cornell's Aviary boxes. =)

I also saw the connection to Odysseus and Penelope--and Niffeneger herself quotes the Odyssey in one epigraph! My edition comes with a reading group guide that picks up on that and asks us to think about the times when Henry and Clare reverse their roles.

catholicauthor said...

Hi Melanie. I was looking for your email address but could not find it. I have co authored a book "Worth the Chase: Finding Love God's Way" and would like to see if you would be interested in reviewing it. It is deeply touching hearts and is available on Amazon as an eBook and in paperback form. I'm happy to email you the PDF. My email address is brendanr@ihug.co.nz and I'm a Catholic author from New Zealand. God bless.