Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Better late than never: The Time Traveler’s Wife

with 2 comments

I didn’t want to read The Time Traveler’s Wife. For at least two years, my wife had encouraged me to check it out, and I resisted, mostly because it was a first novel, it was hugely popular, and it seemed vaguely girly—three attributes that set off alarm bells, even though I’d seen Audrey Niffenegger in person and had been impressed by her smarts and sense of humor. (It didn’t help that I’d initially confused her book, based on the title, with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.) Finally, though, I ran out of excuses, and brought it with me this weekend on our trip to the Indiana Dunes, where I sheepishly discovered that it wasn’t just a good novel, but close to a great one, even a classic. And while such things are always hard to predict, I think it’s one of the few novels written in the last decade that has a good chance of being read and enjoyed fifty years from now.

Which isn’t to say that it’s perfect. The Time Traveler’s Wife is a first novel with a terrific premise, but it has many of the usual problems of a debut. It’s too long, for one thing—there’s barely a page that couldn’t have been trimmed, and while Niffenegger’s prose is mostly fine, it lends itself readily to skimming. Her portrayal of Henry, her involuntary time traveler, is occasionally a bit fangirlish—his voice is less that of a closely observed character than a woman’s impression of how men talk to themselves. Clare, the temporally linear wife of the title, is more fully realized, but even she remains diffuse around the edges, especially for someone with whom we’ve spent hundreds of pages in the first person. (Niffenegger’s main characters are only truly defined by each other.) And while the ending is one of the most powerful I’ve read in a long time, the details of the resolution, like that last deer hunt in the woods, feel contrived, with the author’s hand visibly pulling the strings. (I’ve heard that the movie version has similar problems.)

None of this, however, should detract from the novel’s considerable virtues. Above all else, it’s a tremendously clever book, with an exhilaratingly complicated timeline and the courage to follow through on the implications of its premise. Like many great science fiction novels, it teaches us to read it as it goes along: the first eighty pages are fairly slow going, as the novel gradually lays out the logic of its narrative, but once the rules lock into place, so does the story, and the rest of the novel flies by. Niffenegger knows how to foreshadow, spell out, and deliver on her story’s major set pieces, like Clare and Henry’s wedding. The result is an intensely moving novel, less in its details, which can be melodramatic, than in its structure and narrative implications. Even when its execution falls short, its raw imaginative and intellectual power carries the day, which is the mark of an author who will only continue to grow more interesting with time.

I’m curious to see what Niffenegger does next. Her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, was met with respectful sales and reviews but nothing like the level of popular adulation that greeted her debut. (My wife, in particular, found it disappointing, and it may be a while before I check it out myself.) It will be tempting for her to coast on the reputation of her first great novel and devote herself to the minor projects that she so clearly enjoys—she’s engaging enough in person to do readings for the rest of her life. But Niffenegger occupies an enviable place in contemporary literature: a mainstream novelist of great ingenuity and imaginative resources, with the willingness to write ambitious books that draw on the best of genre and literary fiction. That’s a recipe for a writer of classics, and she’s already given us a big one right out of the gate. And if she pushes herself to grow in confidence and technique, she’s going to be unstoppable.

Written by nevalalee

July 5, 2011 at 9:41 am

2 Responses

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  1. Oh snap! I feel foolish now, because I saw the movie, which as you so correctly observed, featured love so true and torrid as to seem ridiculous, which then let me dismiss the book as a must-read. Apparently the only cinematic romance that can touch my jaded Gen-X heart is one where people hesitate, mumble and shuffle, all the while recalling their favorite tv programs and allowing their friends directive power over whether to pursue their beloved or not. At any rate, I will definitely check this out now–it sounds absolutely wonderful.


    July 5, 2011 at 2:30 pm

  2. I was going to rent the movie to do some kind of comparison here, but after looking at the reviews, I decided to skip it (unless it turns up on Netflix Instant one of these days). And yes, do check out the book—as noted above, it has its problems, but it’s still pretty great. I’d be interested to hear what you think of it!


    July 5, 2011 at 3:06 pm

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