The Time Traveler's Wife was, for me, one those rare and wonderful reading experiences. From the first chapter of Audrey Niffenegger's debut novel, I was hooked. Five hundred pages later, I was grieving the end, not wanting to leave these characters or lose track of their lives.
Niffenegger tells the story of Clare Abshire, a talented paper artist, and Henry DeTamble, a librarian who restores books, listens to the Violent Femmes and just happens to be a time traveler. Henry has what Niffenegger calls a Chrono-Displacement Disorder, a genetic anomaly that causes him to spontaneously, and uncontrollably, travel to another time and place. Sometimes this is a pleasant experience, as when an adult Henry time travels and is able to give his five-year-old self some advice during his first time-travel experience. But many times it is a terrifying experience of suddenly being naked and vulnerable and not knowing where or when he is.
But Niffenegger does not get too caught up in the mind-blowing possibilities of how many Henrys might be at any given place at any given time. This is, at its core, a love story. Her choice to structure the novel in two voices (Clare's and Henry's) is extremely effective. She skillfully maintains their distinct voices and concerns, and gives us a sense both of Clare's more linear experience of their relationship and of Henry's sense of dislocation.
For example, when he and Clare first meet, Henry is 36 and Clare is only six. Henry makes a series of visits to Clare as she is growing up, so by the time they meet in 'real time', (when Clare is 23 and Henry is 31), Clare has known Henry her whole life and knows they will be married. However, Henry has not yet met Clare and has no idea who she is.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that the time-travel device is some sort of gimmick that the author uses to spice up her novel. The Time Traveler's Wife is peopled by complex characters the reader values and cares about. Niffenegger's skill as a storyteller rests in her ability to create details, images and moments that are disturbing and unforgettable, and then weave them together into a story that readers don't want to end.
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