The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

MacAdam/Cage, 2003, 518 pages, C$25.50 tpb, ISBN 0-965-81867-5

For as long as Science Fiction has existed as a literary genre, its writers and fans have been equally busy considering it a Special Genre and complaining that no one takes it seriously. Why, they sigh, isn’t the mainstream paying attention to SF? Wouldn’t it be cool if mainstream authors wrote SF and SF story were taken seriously as Literature? Cue countless convention panels.

But the twenty-first century so far has been receptive to the blurring of genre boundaries. Amusingly, though, the most successful experiments have come from outside SF looking in: mainstream writers playing with typical SF clichés in increasingly skillful ways, in books published and read as mainstream fiction. (More cynical commentators will snark that it’s easier to teach good writers how to use SF elements than teach SF writers how to write well.)

And so we come to Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, a charming romance between a man unstuck in time and the woman around whom his life revolves. Henry’s life is complicated by a singular genetic trait: Uncontrollably, he travels through time, finding himself naked and confused in his past or future. The only constant is his wife, Claire, which he first meets when she was six but doesn’t see “in real time” until she is 20 and he is 28. Courtship can be complicated when you keep running into the same person at all stages of her life…

Never mind the suspicious genetic rationale for Henry’s time-traveling ability (which behaves as fantasy, but is eventually explained away in scientific terms): Niffenegger has the good sense to develop the tale as rigorously as she can given her premise, and the result can be impressive. Henry develops criminal skills as a matter of survival (finding yourself naked in Chicago in the winter helps make do of scruples), teaches his younger self to cope, obsesses about being there at crucial events of his life, and so on.

At times, it’s a harsh tale: There’s an obvious creep-factor in Henry meeting his to-be wife when she’s a child and he’s a fully-grown adult, but the novel does its best to acknowledge and mitigate the discomfort. On the other hand, the novel breaks other taboos with a smile, and gets grim when Henry defends Claire’s honor. There are heart-breaking scenes when their marriage goes through rough patches, and their first attempts to have a child prove gruesomely unsuccessful. The last hundred pages of the novel get grimmer and grimmer as hints of terrible things accumulate. A movie adaptation is scheduled for Christmas 2008: we’ll see what edginess remains on the screen.

But this is first and foremost a romantic comedy, and the very unusual love story between Henry and Claire is milked for all it’s worth: Despite the element of time-travel, it’s an unusually believable relationship, and this believability does much to contribute to the book’s compulsive attraction: It’s not a short novel, but it feels much shorter thanks to a steady forward rhythm and a series of secrets and revelations strung along the entire length of the novel.

The only nagging aspect to The Time Traveler’s Wife is implicit in its conceit: Henry’s travels through time are “unpredictable”, but dictated by dramatic needs more than anything else. Sequences describing Claire and Henry’s wedding, or the conception of their daughter, are virtuoso pieces of stunt plotting, but it’s at showy moments like those that the story gets less believable.

Still, it’s a small price to pay for a memorable piece of writing. Genre critics will be fascinated to see the way Niffenegger is able to make juice out of the old pressed lemon of time-travel, not by topping decades of genre history, but by looking at the possibilities of the idea through the lenses of mature adult romance. Well-written, well-plotted and well-detailed, The Time Traveler’s Wife also happens to be one of those books that genre fans and genre haters alike are likely to enjoy. Mainstream and SF, for once united: it just took an uncommonly good book to do it all.

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