Sunday, June 22, 2008

Book: The Time Traveler's Wife

What a lovely surprise. This book was completely different from what I thought it would be.

I was expecting it to be set either in the 1800s or so, or I expected it to be sort of an alternate-reality world. The back cover describes an "adventursome librarian" so I pictured some kind of tweedy Wizard of Oz, flying off to adventures and abandoning his poor, long-suffering wife.

Well, his wife is long-suffering, but other than that, I was completely wrong. The book is set in the recent past and present (from about 1973 to 2008 and a little beyond), and while the 'time-traveler' does indeed disappear and leave his wife sometimes, it's totally beyond his control. He has no say in when or where he travels. He's kind of a punk-rock librarian, very naughty until he meets his wife in present-day, when he starts to turn into the sort of man she has known her whole life.

That's the interesting twist... while he does not actually meet her until he is about 27, she has known older versions of him since she was six (he often visits her on travels to the past), and has been waiting her whole life to meet him in the present. This sort of circular time-keeping takes a little getting used to, but quickly the brain adapts and it starts to make sense although I had to often stop and work out the chronology (or double-chronology) for myself sometimes.

Anyway. I read the first page, and was hooked. I read the first chapter, and was confused. But then it all started to make sense, and what a lovely, beautiful, quirky and full book this was. At over 500 pages, it was a nice, meaty read. I really, really did not want it to end. Toward the end, I started getting those little heart hiccups -- both because the story started getting a little sad, and also because I really didn't want this book to end.

Henry, the time-traveler, is a smart, rebellious young librarian (he's a punk librarian, which I thought gave him some great individuality as a character), semi-notorious for going through young ladies like Kleenex. Clare, his bride-to-be (someday), is a lovely young artist whose entire life has been affected by Henry's future self visiting her over the years. In a way, her life cannot really start until she meets him in the present. There's nothing either of them can do to change the fact that they will meet and fall in love, so it becomes sort of pointless to date anyone else.

This is one aspect of the story which I found interesting. Unlike the sort of time-traveling that takes place in, say, Back To The Future, Henry cannot actually change anything in the past. All he can do is be there. He cannot say or do anything to change things that he knows are going to happen. Even if, for instance, it happens that both his future self and present self are present in the same room, and someone finds them together, he can't change that. It's already happened. It happens because it happens.

Clearly there is some kind of statement being made here about the inevitability of fate. Even when you think you're changing the future, you're really not. You were going to make that change, whatever it was, anyway. This sort of pre-determinism I found oddly difficult to wrap my brain around, but the characters struggle with it as well, so it made it easier to accept and ponder.

Henry and Clare are such interesting characters. Henry, somewhat buffeted about by this genetic disorder which he can't control, is somewhat fatalistic and has a desperate edge about him at all times, which softens over time as his past catches up to his present and his life begins to unfold. Clare, helpless to do anything to help Henry with his travels, is often left behind with no idea when in time he is, nor when he will return. Once she has met and fallen in love with the present-day Henry, she feels anger and resentment, which I found refreshing. She is not the patient, stay-at-home wife who seeks to make it all okay. While she knows there is nothing that can be done to help (because nothing is done to help), she still feels, as any of us would, frustrated and angry at being left at crucial times in her life.

Something I found particularly captivating was that occasionally a future Henry would find Clare in her present-day life, and give her little clues to help her along as she struggles with the difficulties of living with a man who truly sometimes disappears out of thin air. Since she has known this older Henry her entire life, she finds him comforting and familiar as his younger self sometimes is not.

(see what I mean about the funky circular thinking?)

Anyway. I really, really enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to anyone -- it was not sappy, nor too terribly heart-wrenching (although I think I could have cried a bit if I'd let myself), but a very intelligent, clever concept which completely works throughout the entire book, sprinkled with bits of lovely Rilke poetry (Henry is, after all, a librarian) and a very tender love story arching through time.


Alex said...

My sister-in-law is a great fan of that book. I've been meaning to get to it. I think Brad Pitt has bought the rights to the movie.

"Lost" is doing a plot this season in which characters can go back in time but can't change the future.

And what's with all these book titles... "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" "The Kitchen God's Wife" "The Time Traveler's Wife"... always women's roles. How about a title with the man playing the supporting role? (e.g. "The Clock Winder's Husband" "The Drug Runner's Son") I can't think of any like that.

Daphne said...

I guess women are just inherently more interesting! :)