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.