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Books: The Time-Traveler's Wife

Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.

The Time-Traveler's Wife is full of surprises, but three of them are exceptional.

The first comes a few pages into the novel, when you discover that the titular time-traveler isn't some aging jock reminiscing about the glory days or a widower who often gets lost in memories of happier times, but a man who can literally travel through time.

"Oh," you say upon this realization, "Judging from the cover and the blurb on the back, I thought this was contemporary fiction or romantic drama, and that the phrase 'time-traveler' was metaphorical. But apparently not." So you shift gears and adjust yourself to the fact that you are reading a sci-fi book.

The second surprise comes 100 pages later, when you realize that The Time-Traveler's Wife is an contemporary fiction / romantic drama, in addition to being a sci-fi novel as well. "That's certainly ambitious," you think. "But there's no way the author will be able to pull it off successfully."

The third surprise is that, somehow, she does.

Henry De Tamble is the time-traveler, albeit an unwilling one. At seemingly random moments in his life he is abruptly flung to some other date -- usually in the past, occasionally in the future -- where he arrives, naked, onto or close to some scene relevant to his own life. Sometimes he winds up in his own house, and whiles away a few hours hanging out with a younger version of himself. Sometimes he goes far enough back to visit his own mother, who died when he was a boy. Usually he goes back and meets up with one Clare Abshire, the woman he will eventually marry.

He rendezvous with Clare so often that her entire childhood comes to revolve around his visits. Then, iat the age of 20, she bumps into the real-time Henry and, recognizing him as the man who will some day become her husband, invites him out for drinks. One thing leads to another, and the two are eventually hitched.

I'm a sucker for time-travel stories, but only those that get it right. By that I mean that the story needs to have an internally consistent set of rules that the universe adheres to, even when folks are popping into the past and theoretically influencing their own present. Sadly, very very few time-travel stories have met my high standards -- Twelve Monkeys is honestly the only one that leaps to mind. In most, the sort of causal loop described above (Henry and Clare get married because Clare knows that she will eventually marry Henry) would pretty much torpedo the entire premise.

But author Audrey Niffenegger has done the near-impossible with The Time-Traveler's Wife, writing a near-flawless time travel novel that sets ground rules and then scrupulously sticks to them. I would have liked it for this alone, and the fact that the literary romantic fiction half is pretty damned good too is icing on the cake.

Best of all, this is the kind of book that can be safely enjoyed by pretty much anyone: those who typically steer clear of sci-fi will appreciate it as contemporary literature; those who favor Greg Bear over Don DeLillo will groove on Niffenegger's intriguing and well-executed ideas. In fact, I can see The Time-traveler's Wife becoming my default suggestion when asked for a recommendation, and one that I foresee loaned out more often than it sits upon my shelf.

Counterpoint! The Queen's succinct review: "The frickin annoying love story ruined the book for me." Such a romantic, that gal o' mine.

Posted on September 21, 2005 to Books


Can I borrow your copy?

Posted by: Matthew on September 21, 2005 10:06 PM

(I have not read "The Time-traveler's Wife", so these recommendations are not based on any kind of "real" similarity. You just rang a bell in my head...)

If you are a sucker for time-travel stories, you may enjoy "Doomsday Book" and "To Say Nothing of the Dog" by Connie Willis, which are both good sci-fi novels (with surprising depth).

You also may also enjoy Kage Baker's company novels. The first one is "Garden of Iden". (Not so much time-travel as a conspiracy, sci-fi novel... but the whole series is remarkably readable.)

Both authors are amazing researchers, which I felt added a lot to the stories.

Posted by: Matt on September 21, 2005 11:06 PM

All you had to say was "Twelve Monkeys". Now I'm running out to buy the book (and a DVD of Twelve Monkeys).

Posted by: Jack on September 21, 2005 11:21 PM

love Love LOVED this book for so many reasons! Glad it is universally appreciated.

Posted by: galetea on September 22, 2005 2:14 AM

>I'm a sucker for time-travel stories, but only those that get it right.

Oh, you want Tim Powers, "The Anubis Gates".

Posted by: J. on September 22, 2005 4:07 AM

The Amazon link you have didn't work for me, but http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/015602943X/ did. Looks like you're missing an X/ on the end of the link.

I'm going to the store to buy this book this weekend. Thanks for the recommendation.

Posted by: Patrick on September 22, 2005 5:21 AM

I'm glad you did this post, because I hate to admit that this is one of my favorite books. It's a love story at heart, but it is written in a way that is unbelievably unique.

I'm macho. I am. No really. Don't make me sing Macho man.

Posted by: Jon on September 22, 2005 5:28 AM

It is still a romantic novel, despite the time travel premise. Just to warn those who are ready to run to the store!

I first had this as an audiobook and the voice actors were incredible, so if you like audiobooks I highly recommend this one.

Posted by: spygeek on September 22, 2005 5:54 AM

I think you meant "causal loop" and not "casual loop", unless you perhaps *meant* casual loop and I'm a boob. Love the site. Read it daily.

Posted by: Nathan Zamprogno on September 22, 2005 6:27 AM

I love this book. It is my standard "I don't know what you give you but I know you like to read" gift. I rave about it at almost every one of my writing group meetings. I've only loaned my copy once, prefering to buy it for someone instead. I love it when someone loves it as much as I did and dishes about it too.

Posted by: Stacie on September 22, 2005 6:42 AM

There's a somewhat similar premise in Octavia Butler's novel Kindred. A 20th-century woman is trust back in time periodically into situations where her ancestor is in mortal danger and she has to save him so that she and her intervening ancestors can be born. The thing that makes it complicated is that she's African-American and he's a white slaveowner who fathered her next ancestor in line by raping a slave (in the course of a long-term relationship, but of course any romantic/sexual relationship where one person owns the other is about as coercive as it gets). They have a very complicated relationship--she teaches him things that make him a little more tolerant, she gets attached to him, but ultimately they're always in conflict. Also, when she is in his time (sometimes for many months at a stretch) she has to live as a slave, which is really hard for a modern-day woman. Anyways, it's a good novel (though at times harrowing and sad) that works on a similar time-travel paradox.

Posted by: susan on September 22, 2005 7:03 AM

i thought "back to the future" did an awfully good job of sticking to its own rules -- are you forgetting it, or are you about to point out some Tragic Flaw that i've overlooked when holding it up as an example (along with 12 monkeys) of what a time travel movie could be?

Posted by: anne on September 22, 2005 7:16 AM

How funny, I just recommended this book to a friend last night. It is one of my favorites also.

Posted by: Denise on September 22, 2005 7:29 AM

I actually bought the book because it was a romantic novel (but not in a Harlequin kind of way, in a relationships kind of way) and because I love stories that play with time. One of my favorite things about it is the way that he's traveling through time was surprising to me. It's hard not to have sympathy with someone who ends up in places the way he does. I'm really glad guys are liking it too.

Posted by: Kimberly on September 22, 2005 7:50 AM

The scene from the book that always comes to mind is where the guy answers opens the front door and says, "and, naturally, it was me."

(Or something similar ... it's been a while since I read it.)

Posted by: delmer on September 22, 2005 7:54 AM

too right, matt. both are excellent.

brad pitt's monologue in the asylum. the stuff of legends.

poor terry gilliam, nothing but poop since then.

i will say, without the intent of spoiling, that the ending came off a bit chauvinistic, especially from a female author. i'm all for keeping them wimmins knocked up and cooking, but it just didn't ring true to mine ears.

Posted by: chewybrain on September 22, 2005 7:58 AM

I loved this book too - it was especially nice that Henry enjoys the same music I do. ha!

Posted by: Kerry on September 22, 2005 8:19 AM

I read the book in 3 days flat and cried and cried. Your review reminds me that it would be a nice gift for my mom, and spygeek, above, has me thinking hard about the audiobook version. (Momma loves her iPod.) Thanks.

Posted by: Sharon on September 22, 2005 8:25 AM

Ack, sorry, but I'm spoiling the party. I had expected to like this book, I really had. Lots of friends with similar tastes as mine reccommended this book. I looked forward to reading it. And then I promptly hated it.

It wasn't necessarily because I thought it would be MORE sci-fi, or MORE romantic novelish. I do like the idea of combining two very different genres- it was a nice try and I give the author credit for that. I just found both characters completely insufferable, and by the end, I was roorting for something terrible to happen to both of them.

I'm a mean person.

Posted by: the g. on September 22, 2005 8:29 AM

I loved this book. As a librarian, I get asked "what's good" all the time, and I've never had a patron come back to the library and tell me they didn't like this. It's excellent. Smart, sweet, brilliant (he's a librarian! how great is that?!). What an incredible debut!

Posted by: claudia on September 22, 2005 8:50 AM

I guess I'm not saying anything new here, but when I heard the premise of the book from my mom (who tried to read it and couldn't stick with it), I knew I had to read it for myself. I was very impressed - can you believe this is Niffenegger's first novel? Her only major failing as an author, IMHO, is that she so obviously based the lead female character on herself - a surprising move for someone creative enough to have written such a great book.

Posted by: John on September 22, 2005 9:02 AM

I didn't care for this book at all. The characters were cheap and not likable and I found the over all story very boring. for what ever reason i found I enjoyed the butterfly effect. But twelve monkeys is certainly the raining champ.

Posted by: endo on September 22, 2005 9:26 AM

I should read my posts before I publish them. Please disregard all the spelling and grammatical errors in the last post.

Posted by: endothermal on September 22, 2005 9:30 AM

Doomsday Book isnt that hot. Its an interesting take on time travel and how it might fit into a real world application for studying the past, its long and vaugely boring. It spends 1/3rd of the book slowly building up to a problem, the next third building up to twist the problem and then the last third abandoning all that because it isnt what they thought at all and settles for a standard hero rescue ending and neat wrapups.

Posted by: David P on September 22, 2005 9:33 AM

I came to recommend Doomsday Book as another time travel novel that's internally consistent, but I see Matt beat me to it. I like to reread books, but this is the only one I can think of that still made me cry the third or fourth time through. It is long, but David P is the first person I've ever heard describe it as boring. I never lend it to anyone without making sure that they don't have any big deadlines coming up, because everyone I've lent it to has ended up spending all night reading it.

I don't think the Kage Baker novels are entirely self-consistent in their treatment of time travel, but they are still quite enjoyable. The next one comes out on Oct. 1.

Posted by: Elizabeth on September 22, 2005 9:40 AM

i really liked this book with one exception. i thought that the story was very delicate and the constant use of the 'c' word along with other sexual refrences were very harsh. it didn't match the feeling of the rest of the story.

anyone else picked up on this?

Posted by: urs on September 22, 2005 10:40 AM

Whatever you do - do NOT read this book when pregnant. Just trust me on this - wait until after you've had the baby. (Yeah - right - like I've been able to finish 2 books in the last 5 months since giving birth.)

Posted by: Erika on September 22, 2005 10:54 AM

Another fantastic (IMHO) time-travel/romance novel is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.

Lots of historical detail and well developed characters. Plus, it has sequels! Some better than others of course...

Posted by: Paige on September 22, 2005 11:46 AM

In my experience, guys don't "get" Outlander.

Doomsday Book, on the other hand -- I was actually crying through the last chapter, though it's hard to explain why without being spoilish. I think it's Willis's best, although I am also very fond of "To Say Nothing of the Dog." "Dog" supposes the same time travel mechanism as "Doomsday," but it's humorous instead of dramatic.

(Off on a tangent: if you've never read the original "Three Men in A Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog" by Jerome K. Jerome, it's worth looking up on Project Gutenberg. It's a wonderful, goofy travelogue down a river and through Edwardian England.)

Posted by: Carny Asada on September 22, 2005 12:30 PM

stumbled into your blog ...read your latest book review post-- so heres the random question from the stranger. have you read Layer Cake? Just finished it-- looking to give the movie a shot sometime soon...

Posted by: whut? on September 22, 2005 1:15 PM


someone explain this before my brain explodes!
If I dont get an explanation Ill be forced to generate my own ficitonal reason and blog my ass of about it...
previous comment said...

Whatever you do - do NOT read this book when pregnant. Just trust me on this - wait until after you've had the baby. (Yeah - right - like I've been able to finish 2 books in the last 5 months since giving birth.)

Posted by: whut? on September 22, 2005 1:17 PM

I can't say that I didn't enjoy reading it, but for my taste it was too darn long, like a soap opera that goes on and on and on. You can literally skip whole pages (I did, actually) and not miss anything - they don't contribute with anything to the story. You can take out about 30% of the book and it'd be just as good, or even better, in my opinion. Also, parts of it seem inspired in Hollywood clichés - the wedding, among other things.
I did enjoy it but wouldn't recommend it.

Oh, and the reason Erika said not to read it while pregnant is because (((SPOILER AHEAD))) the main character gets pregnant about 5 times and loses the children because they time-travel out of her woumb (it's a genetic disease, you see) and die. She gets really depressed and I suppose you would, too. She manages to have a healthy baby girl after that, though. So, in short: whatever.

Posted by: Aron on September 22, 2005 2:14 PM

How about Steven Karl Zoltan Brust's "Cowboy Feng's Spacetime Bar and Grille" in which travel to the past is only permitted when one sets up changes that will only be felt after the time traveller left the future?

I also think that David Gerrold's "The Man Who Folded Himself" is worthwhile. It embraces alternate timelines, though. This allows the time traveller teach himself to time travel, to be his own progenitor, to be his own child, etc.

Posted by: Phil Jessel on September 23, 2005 6:07 AM

I read this book at the beginning of the summer. I agree 100% with you on this one. I also am a huge sucker for anything time-travel...books, movies, etc... this one held together and I couldn't put it down til I was done!! I'd definitely recommended it!!

Posted by: Malie on September 23, 2005 8:28 AM

I'm in the middle of the Outlander series and don't think guys would like it. Those are definitely romance novels even though they're jam-packed with history. The time travel part is interesting, but it's just a plot vehicle, not really a series about time travel in the way the others mentioned here are.

Posted by: Kimberly on September 23, 2005 9:30 AM

Good review. This one is on my list of books to read, so hoping to get to it soon. I'm really lookin forward to it.

Posted by: Debra on September 24, 2005 1:42 AM

I'm with the Queen - the kid bugged too. (Great concept, except for the sappy crap.)

Posted by: s on September 24, 2005 1:45 PM

This was one of my favorite books that I read last year, and I was curious to see how a guy would react to it--I'm happy to see that there are a few guys here who loved it as much as I did!

As for Connie Willis, I preferred "To Say Nothing of the Dog" because of the humor. I live across the street from a church, and for a couple of days after finishing "Doomsday Book" the bells made me jumpy.

When I was a kid I read all the kids' time-travel fiction I could get my hands on, though the only one I remember now is "The Egypt Game" by Zylpha Keatley Snyder. No idea how the theory of time loops would hold up to an adult reading, though.

Posted by: Larisa on September 24, 2005 4:10 PM

I did like this book; I did. But I found the love story very suspect in that a little girl meets an adult man and falls in love with him over the years and ends up marrying him and never loving or even considering any other man. It doesn't take intercourse to sexually abuse or just abuse a child, you know. Even though Henry was oh-so-careful about pushing her off when she was a horny teen, I felt a little ick about her devotion to him. Why doesn't anyone else ever mention the potential abuse angle? I don't find her devotion romantic at all, just creepy.

Thanks for posting your review!

Posted by: Kris on September 26, 2005 8:31 AM

I'm also with the Queen - neat concept, but wrecked by pseudo-romantic drivel. The main character's a selfish jerk - I'm not sure what the heck Clare was thinking staying with him. The whole child plot was terrible too. I would have adopted after the first 'miscarriage'. I immediately picked up a Jasper Fforde novel to rinse my brain and replace it with happier thoughts :-)

Posted by: dina on September 26, 2005 9:53 AM

Finally! I was wondering when you were gonna review this, mostly because I was curious to see what a guy would think about the story. Since I read it, it's been off my bookshelf and passed around by several friends who have all been completely sucked in by the very unusual combo of sci-fi and romance. Some of my favorite scenes are when Henry is hanging out with his younger self, who is still learning the ropes of how to get around when he's plunked down naked and penniless in random locations. If you're from or have ever lived in Chicago, you'll also enjoy the incorporation of lots of local neighborhoods and landmarks from the windy city. Thanks for the great review - I'm going to show it to my sci-fi obsessed boyfriend and maybe he'll finally listen to me and read the damn thing!

Posted by: Kerri on September 26, 2005 1:59 PM

Have you seen 'Primer'? Nice low-budget high concept time travel tale that really becomes somewhat mind-boggling...a total treat for those who whince when stories don't hold to their internal logic.

There is always that great R. Heinlein story All You Zombies...oh wait here it is!


Posted by: Sam on September 26, 2005 2:25 PM

I'm a mean jerk, too, because I didn't like this book and found the characters intolerable. Especially Claire. And if you deleted every reference to how thin Henry was the book would be thin, too. It was tedious.

I have since heard that Brad Pitt optioned the novel and is going to make it into a movie starring himself, directed by Gus Van Sant(!?). Anyone else heard this?

And for those that read it, what exactly do you think the two adolescent Henrys were doing in their bedroom when they were discovered by their father?

Posted by: Tinabug on September 30, 2005 2:55 PM

I really liked the book. At first I didn't; it was a love story (big deal, right?) and implausible (time travel?!) but looking beneath that, it was about free will and choices. Why didn't Henry ever mess with "history" while he was traveling? Why did he sit in front of the TV on 9/11 when he knew it was going to happen?

Chew on that....

Posted by: Angloesque on October 5, 2005 10:35 PM

I got this book from the library on your recommendation, and let me say that having finished it in 2 nights and bawled my eyes out, I think you picked a winner. And let me say that when you recommend more books, I'll be first in line to pick them up. Thanks so much for pointing this gem out!

Posted by: Shelly on October 19, 2005 10:25 PM

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned Kurt Vonnegut's _Slaughterhouse-Five_, the first line of which is "Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time." Pilgrim travels back and forth throughout his life, which includes being a POW during the bombing of Dresden in WWII (Vonnegut experienced that IRL). It sounds to me as though all of those newish books mentioned in this thread kind of took off from Vonnegut's, as it was written earlier. I always recommend Vonnegut to everyone, especially this one, and most especially _Cat's Cradle_, which turned me into a Bokononist. Not really, because I don't want to hang from the ho-oo-ok. (You won't get that unless and until you read _Cat's Cradle_.)

I love Connie Willis's work, but her books about time travel are just person goes back in time, person comes back. In Vonnegut's book, the hero is unstuck in time and keeps reliving portions of his life. I do think it probably was the first non-SF book to explore this. Worth a read.

Posted by: Shalanna Collins on October 24, 2005 1:06 AM