Sunday, November 30, 2008

67. The Time Traveler's Wife

by Audrey Niffenegger
read by William Hope and Laurel Lefkow

I would describe this book as romantic fantasy or a sci-fi love story. The hero, Henry DeTamble, can time travel (although he has little or no control over it), the heroine, Clare Abshire DeTamble, cannot. They first meet when she is 6 and he is 36; they first meet in real time when she is 20 and he is 28.

The time-traveling acts as a marvelous metaphor for love, how it changes, how it's always affected by the past and the future. The book won the 2005 Arthur C. Clarke Award (the United Kingdom’s top prize for science fiction).

I will admit up front I am a sucker for time travel stories (not otherwise being much of a fan of sci fi). I think this one is especially interesting because it explores lots of aspects of time traveling - not revealing the future to those in the past, predestination paradoxes, determinism versus chaos, free will versus God’s purpose, etc. - and has the characters discussing them. I also find it interesting that the author portrays Henry’s time-traveling as a genetic disorder that might be curable or controlled at some point – this impacts the storyline.

I think the time traveling in this book is especially interesting. Usually, time travelers don't seek themselves out in other time periods to interact with themselves. I think it's very interesting that the adult Henry is the one who trains his small self how to survive the time jumps. Clare learns from Henry growing up and then teaches him how to accept himself as worthy of affection after they meet in real time. Henry considers Clare to be the stabilizing force in his life.

Clare has "known" Henry for 14 years by the time they actually meet in real time, but it's the opposite for Henry. There is something very appealing about someone who seems to understand you completely and is very comfortable around you.

I could relate to the characters and the setting. I was born in Evanston, a Chicago suburb, and still have a lot of family in the Chicago area. I remember visiting the Field Museum in 1970, just a couple years after Henry's first visit. Like Clare, I went to Catholic school for grades 1-12. I thought Clare as a Catholic schoolgirl was pretty realistic!

However, I could have done with less of the music details in the book - all the names of the punk and other groups that Clare and Henry liked to listen to. I feel that will date the book further down the line. Conversely, it might have been interesting to hear a little more about Clare's paper art.

The book also has a lot of unique metaphors: Henry reflecting on his double self that's five years older ... "I envy him......whatever pleasures are to be had, he's had them; for me they wait like a box of unpoked chocolates." (p. 152)

When Henry doesn't recognize the little gifts he's given Clare over the years when he's visited the Meadow .... "all the little tokens and souvenirs in this museum of our past are as love letters to an illiterate." (p. 170)

From the letter Henry left for Clare (p. 519): "Our love has been the thread through the labyrinth, the net under the high-wire walker, the only real thing in this strange life of mine that I could ever trust."

This was a difficult read for me the first time around (in 2004), but it was easier the second time. I learned the hard way the first time I read this that you really have to pay attention to the dates and ages at the beginning of the various sections. It all comes together more by the end of the book. I found a blog where the author has constructed timelines for the book. BE FOREWARNED - there are spoilers in the timelines - but they might help by the time you finish the book:

The author had two timelines (perhaps Henry’s and Clare’s?) to help her stay organized while writing the book. Niffenegger, a writer, artist, and professor in the Center for Book & Paper Arts of the Interdisciplinary Arts Master of Fine Arts program at the Columbia College Chicago, says the story was inspired by the love between her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather died young, and her grandmother, who lived another three decades, never remarried. "I wanted to write about a perfect marriage that is tested by something outside the control of the couple."

I think this book is one of those ones you either love or don't. I personally love it; I've always been fascinated by time travel stories and the whole structure of this book is so unique. I guess its aspects of timeless love mesh so well with my own life that I can relate a lot to its themes. When two people meet at a young age and have a relationship that lasts through the years (at least for Clare), consciously or not they would influence each other's development, so if they had not met, they would surely be different people.

I originally met the love of my life when I was 22 and he was 37; we dated for 4+ years but did not marry for various reasons. We re-met at 48 and 64. We'd only seen each other once between ages 27-48 (me) and 43-64 (him), and there were only some Christmas cards/phone calls/e-mail messages otherwise, as we both ended up marrying (and divorcing) other people in between. We thought/dreamed about each other a lot though.

In a way, after we re-met, it was kind of like time-traveling back to our past - all the passion was still there. I know I would have been a very different person if we had not met the first time, and he says the same.

A little oddity that caught my interest (being a librarian) - when Henry has his "foot dreams," he describes a box in the Newberry Library in Chicago that contain his feet, with a call number of CASE WING f ZX 983.D 453.

There are no Dewey or LC call numbers that correspond to even parts of this, but I did see that the real Newberry Library Special Collections includes a section on printing, book arts, and the history of the book funded by the John M. Wing foundation:

I did find 8 items with both "CASE WING" and "ZX 983" in the call number, but nothing with this exact number. I’m not an expert, but it sounds like an archival cataloging system. The "D 453" might refer to DeTamble.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook version for this reread. William Hope (as Henry) and Laurel Lefkow (as Clare) are fantastic! It's very easy to keep track of the viewpoints with the audiobook. At first I didn't care for Hope's slightly cynical and strident voice, but I have grown to feel it is appropriate. Lefkow is absolutely marvelous, makes Clare sound like a little girl and a teen as needed. I would definitely recommend this audiobook to others!

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