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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife

Whenever I hear or read about a book I want, I jot it down in a little book I keep with me. The list is several hundred entries long, so it is not uncommon for me to get around to reading a book I marked down years ago, and to forget why I wanted to read it in the first place. That happened with the Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. Apparently the reviews made an impression on me, and I wrote the book down, actually bought the book a couple of years ago, and decided I wanted to read it a few months ago. But I could not find my copy anywhere. Finally, spurred by the (then) imminent release of the movie I bought another copy so I could read it before seeing it (which turned out to be unnecessary -- given the dismal reviews, I won't be making much effort to see the movie unless it pops up on cable for free).

Because so much time had passed, I started the book cold, with no idea why I thought I would like it, and knowing nothing about it other than it was a love story with time-traveling. And that is a succinct description of it. I enjoyed the book quite a bit; I thought it was an intriguing premise handled well, and the writing was good, and some parts moved me quite a bit. But in the end I think I would have enjoyed it more if there had been deeper levels to the book. The romance was lovely, but by focusing almost exclusively on that the book had a very intimate feeling -- nothing really mattered beyond Clare and Henry, and we never got a sense of the world around them; we barely even saw anything of their lives other than their love. I kept on hoping for something on a grander scale. Henry's time-traveling was the result of a genetic mutation*, and I wanted to read more about that -- were others affected? How common was it? How would society deal with this mutation, would they ostracize or fear travelers, would they try to replicate time-traveling, would they take in stride naked people popping in and out of the present? What would time-traveling mean, not just for the characters themselves, but the world of the narrative -- how would it affect work, politics, science? And on a meta scale, what would time-traveling mean? Why this metaphor, other than to show that it's hard loving someone who is always leaving?

I really don't mean this as a criticism. I genuinely enjoyed the book, I think it is a wonderful concept that made a lovely, er, love story. Certainly, given that Niffenegger has stated she was inspired by frustrations in her own love life, it is understandable why she wrote the book she did. But I would also have love to read Borges's take on this, or Kelly Link's, or Chabon's.

*One thing I noticed almost immediately was that Niffenegger had created a detailed and believeable description of time-traveling, so I was nerdily thrilled to read's article on how Niffenegger's time travel is more scientifically plausible than most other descriptions. I especially appreciated his mentioning of the grandfather paradox to explain why one can't actually change the past, because one churlish reviewer of the book complained about the fact that Henry did not try to prevent the Spetember 11 attacks. Setting aside that a novel that changed that event would be creepy, if not downright offensive, and that the reviewer does not attempt to explain just how much crime and tragedy a time traveler is morally obliged to prevent, I don't think he read the book very carefully because from the beginning Niffenegger makes it clear Henry can't change the past. When he tries, he feels this pressure, this dread, that he cannot overcome, and he must let things unfold as they are supposed to. And now I learn that according to physics, this is a necessary requirement of time travel -- no parallel universes. Take that, Churlish Reviewer!

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