#19. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
This is #19 on the 2012 BBC’s Top 100 Books
The Time Traveler’s Wife is the debut novel of American author Audrey Niffenegger, published in September 2003 in a hardback edition by MacAdam/Cage in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom by Random House on January 1st, 2004. It is a love story about a man with a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel unpredictably, and about his wife, an artist, who has to cope with his frequent absences and dangerous experiences. Niffenegger, frustrated in love when she began the work, wrote the story as a metaphor for her failed relationships. The tale’s central relationship came to her suddenly and subsequently supplied the novel’s title. The novel, which has been classified as both science fiction and romance, examines issues of love, loss, and free will. In particular, it uses time travel to explore miscommunication and distance in relationships, while also investigating deeper existential questions.
As a first-time novelist, Niffenegger had trouble finding a literary agent. She eventually sent the novel to MacAdam/Cage unsolicited and, after an auction took place for the rights, Niffenegger selected them as her publishers in the United States.
MacAdam/Cage initiated an “extensive marketing drive”, including advertising in The New York Times and The New Yorker and a promotional book tour by Niffenegger. As a result, the novel debuted at number nine on the New York Times bestseller list. After popular crime writer Scott Turow, whose wife is a friend of Niffenegger, endorsed it on The Today Show, the first print run of 15,000 sold out and 100,000 more copies were printed. In Britain, the book received a boost from its choice as a Richard & Judy book club recommendation—nearly 45,000 copies were sold in one week. It was named the 2003 Amazon.com Book of the Year. A December 2003 article in The Observer reported that although “a tiny minority of American reviewers” felt that the novel was “gimmicky”, it was still “a publishing sensation”. At that point, the novel had been sold to publishers in 15 countries. As of March 2009, it had sold almost 1.5 million copies in the United States and 1 million in the United Kingdom. The success of The Time Traveler’s Wife prompted almost every major publishing firm to attempt to acquire Niffenegger’s second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which has been called “one of the most eagerly sought-after works in recent publishing history”. It garnered her an advance of $5 million from Scribner’s.
Reviewers praised Niffenegger’s characterization of Henry and Clare, particularly their emotional depth. Michelle Griffin of The Age noted that although Henry “is custom-designed for the fantasy lives of bookish ladies”, his flaws, particularly his “violent, argumentative, depressive” nature, make him a strong, well-rounded character. Charles DeLint wrote in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that one of Niffenegger’s “greatest accomplishments” in the novel was her ability to convey the emotional growth of Clare and Henry in character arcs while at the same time alternating their perspectives. Stephen Amidon of The Times, however, questioned the selfishness of the central characters. I do have to disagree with Amidon’s perspective of selfishness, though because if the central characters were indeed selfish, would they have changed some things in their benefit? Such as Henry losing his feet and his ultimate death?
Most reviewers were impressed with the premise of the novel, but critical of its melodramatic style. While Griffin praised the plot and concept as “clever”, she complained that Niffenegger’s writing is usually “pedestrian” and the story at times contrived. Heidi Darroch of the National Post agreed, contending that the story has an excess of overwrought emotional moments “which never quite add up to a fully developed plot”, but I feel that overwrought is such a harsh term, when the characters are experiencing emotions that have not been expressed in a term of reality, as in the time travel has not been noted to be experienced and recorded by anyone known. Neither has the critic every dealt with anyone who has experienced such a devastating, almost suicidal drive to have children, either. Writing in The Chicago Tribune, Carey Harrison praised the originality of the novel, specifically the intersection of child-bearing and time travel. Despite appreciating the novel’s premise, Amidon complained that the implications of Henry’s time-traveling were poorly thought out. For example, Henry has foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks but does nothing to try to prevent them. Instead, on 11 September 2001, he gets up early “to listen to the world being normal for a little while longer”. Henry was very adamant about not changing the course of history, even when the changes in history could have been better off for Henry or Clare. A prime example is the loss of Henry’s feet, and, ultimately, his own death. Amidon also criticized the novel’s “overall clumsiness”, writing that Niffenegger is “a ham-fisted stylist, long-winded and given to sudden eruptions of cliche”. I didn’t feel this was the case with her writing. Her style is completely different than the styles that Amidon typical writes positively about. Miriam Shaviv agreed to an extent, writing in The Jerusalem Post, “There are no original or even non-cliched messages here. True love, Niffenegger seems to be telling us, is timeless, and can survive even the worst circumstances. … And yet, the book is a page-turner, delicately crafted and psychologically sound.” Representative of the bulk of reviews, the Library Journal described the novel as “skillfully written with a blend of distinct characters and heartfelt emotions”; it recommended that public libraries purchase multiple copies of the book.
Many reviewers were impressed with Niffenegger’s unique perspectives on time travel. I was concerned that the passages were going to be difficult to catalog, as they were not chronologically in order, but I have to say that I was indeed wrong! Some praised her characterization of the couple, applauding their emotional depth; others criticized her writing style as melodramatic and the plot as emotionally trite. The novel won the Exclusive Books Boeke Prize and a British Book Award. A film version was released in August 2009.