This is easily the best book I’ve read this year, and probably the most moving book I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down. It was great.
Henry, the time traveler of the title, has a genetic disorder that causes him to travel through time, mostly his own past, without warning. His episodes can be triggered by stress, illness, surprise, or even standing up too quickly. He finds himself whenever and wherever, completely naked, often vomiting, and occasionally surrounded by very confused strangers. Some of the most interesting parts of the novel were when Henry had to cope with being dropped in different situations that were completely out of his control, often having to seek help from his past or future self. Clare is Henry’s wife, in some, but not all, layers of time that the story follows. The story is almost evenly divided between her narration and Henry’s. She plays Penelope to Henry’s Odysseus, and a lot of her plot is figuring out how to cope with this strange part of their relationship, but she does it gracefully. "Love conquers all," or so I've heard.
As you can probably imagine, a lot of Niffenegger’s plot is very circular. Henry grows up, meets Clare, marries her, then travels back into the past and meets her as a six year-old girl. Clare grows up, recognizes Henry in a library, and asks him out. This is the first time Henry meets Clare. There are all kinds of situations like this one: one of them has almost always experienced the majority of their relationship before the other, past and future. Often times, something very important to their life and the story happens only as a result of Henry accidentally (or intentionally) affecting their past or future. But, and here’s the only place where the book teeters on the frontier of science-fiction land, everything that’s ever happened, or will happen, or is happening, is unchangeable, and on the same plane. Time is viewed as something very parallel. The whole novel is written in the present tense to emphasize this, which I liked very much. You might expect a plot that constantly jumps backwards or forwards in time any number of years or days to be a headache, as I did, but Niffenegger handled it perfectly, and managed to completely avoid any redundancy that probably could have sprung up very easily.
The most beautiful thing about this book is the joy or pain that they share (or that Henry keeps from Clare) at knowing certain inevitable parts of their future, good or bad. The Time Traveler’s Wife raises a lot of questions about how much of our lives are actually in our own hands, and I don’t mind that it doesn’t bother to answer them, or speculate as to whose hands they might be in. That’s not the point. The point is that they fell in love, and they couldn’t help it, and nothing can change it. It’s completely new to see love overcome something like a genetic time travel disorder, but it still feels familiar. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love, or cared deeply for anyone, will be able to understand a lot of what Henry and Clare go through, even if they don’t have a genetic disorder that causes them to instantaneously travel through time and space, completely naked.
Niffenegger, although she has a silly name, wrote a great novel. And I don’t care what you think about love stories; this is a great story no matter what you call it. Read it.