Novel Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife

I purchased this novel for my wife’s birthday, back in 2003 or 2004, when Niffenegger’s debut first appeared to general acclaim. With the film adaptation arriving later this summer, I decided to read it.1

Title: The Time Traveler’s Wife

Author: Audrey Niffenegger
ISBN: 015602943X, 978-0156029438
First published: 2003.

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A man travels in time, against his will, to places and moments significant to his life. This has some undeniably odd effects on his relationship with his wife. He first meets her when they are young adults; she first meets him when she is six and he is thirty-six.

High Points:

Time travel, as experienced by the novel’s characters, reflects on real-life memory and existence. The older I get, the more I understand the way Henry experiences life, a series of moments in which we participate and can always feel, but which we cannot change afterward.

Low Points:

I found myself distracted by how much Henry resembles Mary Sue’s boyfriend. He’s an intelligent stay-at-home (when time doesn’t have other plans) gourmet cook with a perfect understanding of Clare’s sexual needs who, however, beneath his librarian’s exterior (and in response to circumstances, so it’s completely forgivable) can become the toughest badass and, before he met Clare, a real bad boy womanizer.

I recognize the Black servants exist (in part) to characterize Clare’s family, but I wish the author had made them more than peripheral. Without question, their handling will make some readers uncomfortable.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6. Many writers have used time travel in fiction before; other writers have even composed time-travel romance before. Henry’s situation superficially resembles Winston Niles Rumfoord’s from Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan— though many reviewers made the link to Billy Pilgrim from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Nevertheless, I found Neffenegger’s take original and well-imagined.

Imagery: 5/6: Neffenegger describes the world in detail. In places, it may be a little too much detail.2

Story: 5/6. Niffenegger gives us time travel without any significant paradoxes. We’re left wondering why Henry is so helpless to change events (when elsewhere he acts to profit from time-travel-related knowledge), but really, this is a secondary matter. Time travel exists here to reflect on relationships, memory, and the human condition.

Characterization: 4/6. Henry and Clare have been beautifully developed, and Niffenegger makes the relationships between Henry and the younger versions of his wife surprisingly non-creepy—even when they (eventually) have sex. One expects the secondary characters to be less well-developed, but a few of them left me wanting to know more. Kimy, in particular, should have received more of the author’s time; she’s too important to the story to be left so incompletely-sketched.

Emotional Response: 5/6 People who read romance want the highs and lows of human emotion, and this novel presents them in an accessible way. You can relate to some aspect of these characters and events even if you normally snub the genre.

Editing: 5/6. Niffenegger writes well, and makes excellent use of foreshadowing. We often know vaguely how events will turn out, and want to know how and why. I suspect she will write better. Whether she will ever experience the runaway success of this debut novel remains, however, to be seen.

Overall score: 5/6. This book will appeal to some readers who normally eschew romance, while some sensitive souls will find elements of it a little harsh.

In total, The Time Traveler’s Wife receives 33/42


1. I enjoyed the book—but it’s strongest points won’t necessarily translate to a visual medium. I fear the forthcoming film will play as cheaply sentimental, a chrono-displaced Walk to Remember.

2. And yes, Chad, that includes (comparatively graphic) sex scenes.

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