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by John Q McDonald --- 20 July 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife

by Audrey Niffenegger

Here's one of Time's many paradoxes: it moves forward. As far as physics is concerned, it's not terribly well explained why Time appears to us to move only forward. In the equations, time is symmetric, it could move backward as easily as it moves forward. This suggests that all times actually exist now and that it is our perception that takes us linearly forward. What is it about our perception that requires that? We are all time travelers. We move forward at a pace of one day per day, but we are traveling in time. Of course, anyone who has stood in line at the DMV or endured a root canal knows that time stretches and shrinks, even stops. But it almost never moves backward, really. We can engage in a complex discussion of time travel, but this novel asks us to set all that aside and accept that one of our protagonists, hapless Henry DeTamble, is a time traveler.

And so, due to a genetic defect, DeTamble leaps back and forth in time, involuntarily. He also travels in space (After all, at 19 miles per second, the Earth will have moved pretty far off when he returns from his journey. Why isn't he left stranded in the vacuum of space? But we're asked not to consider this problem. This is fiction.) Henry's time traveling is apparently linked to the events of his life and to the woman he loves. He is in his thirties when he meets her. She is six. He has traveled back in time and teaches her to love him. Eventually, she will meet up with him in "real time" and she'll already be in love with him. Sound complicated? It is, and the author's deft handling of the many moments in time, past and present, is one of the high-wire acts of this novel that she pulls off quite well. It is a credit to her that the reader doesn't become overly confused by these jumps back and forth.

Time travel is the gimmick, but the story is really about relationships and how they evolve over time. It is about how people come and go, live and die, and enter into and exit from our lives in often unexpected, tragic and painful ways. Clare loves Henry, but endures his comings and goings because of the paradox to which she has been witness all her life. Henry is flung back and forth in time. It makes him a difficult person to understand, to Clare and to his friends. The romantic hook to this novel is that his love for Clare is the one true meaning in his life, and hers. This is more of a romance than science-fiction. There are a few neat effects of all this time travel. The opportunity to nurture your childhood self appeals to that "if I knew then what I know now" fantasy. Financial issues are solved by the occasional set of winning lottery numbers and stock tips. But, Henry finds it impossible to change the events of his past. He can bend time, not break it. He cannot save his mother's life in an awful car wreck. He cannot avoid his mistakes, and not even his own death. That said, Niffenegger stops short of some of the possibilities of her primary trope. Henry feels more like the main character than Clare. Neither of their lives beyond the romantic adventure of the time travel love story is drawn in much detail. It's a boy-meets-girl story, more complex and feeling than most, and it endures until the end of their time. There is also the long painful episode of their attempts to have a baby and Henry's attempt to transcend or to cure his genetic defect and become fixed to time. A lot of this is metaphor, though. We're reading about the difficulties of relationships, the mystery if knowing another person and sharing his or her life, the difficulties of birth and the anguish of death. All of this happens in time, and Niffenegger brings it to us in fragments of fantasy.

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