On The Time Traveler’s Wife
by Audrey Niffeneger
I often wonder…what with all the inventions, innovations and the world literally at our fingertips now, why haven’t scientists invented a time machine yet? All limited resources follow the basic norm of economics. But time, the most limited of all resources, defies it – you can’t save it, can’t return it, there is no credit for wasting (read overspending) it. Hence, making a more compelling case for people to find a way to manipulate it.
Think about how much time we spend thinking about time, either about traveling ahead or turning it back. I wish I could have done this or that, if I could change this, if I just knew this before…
We have medicines to cure the most complicated diseases, reverse the impact of age, even a science to predict future, why not have, say, a Vitamin T for Time? Popping a pill could give one more hours in a day, a 500 mg may even catapult us into the future for some time, or a Slow Release version of the pill that could slow us down and transport us back to the past for a bit. I know I’m getting carried away with this, but did anyone think cloning was possible 50 years back?
That was just some food for thought. In the meanwhile, till someone really manages to make this real, we can continue to feed on sci-fi books and movies. My recent read gave me a lot of fodder for this: The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Debut novel of author Audrey Niffenegger, it is a love story set in an unusual backdrop of time traveling. I have to say, along with the “bestseller” and “major motion picture” labels on the cover, it should also have one that reads “water-works”.
In the book, the protagonist Henry De Tamble suffers from a rare genetic anomaly, called Chrono-Impairment that causes him to involuntarily travel through time, to the future and to the past. His destinations are tied to his subconscious – places and times related to his own history. For instance, he visits his wife multiple times during her childhood, almost accompanying her growth from childhood to adulthood…on the other hand, he also tends to keep going back to the scene of his mother’s car accident in which he lost her to death. It’s not unusual for Henry to run into the other Henry from some other time period and help him out of a jam.
Difficult to comprehend? Yes it is, indeed. But Niffinegger makes this sound so real that at one point I felt compelled to google whether this is a real disease (feel free to laugh at me over this, I felt incredibly stupid for doing so myself).
Using the alternating first-person style, the novel narrates the stories of Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire. When 20-year-old Clare meets 28-year-old Henry at the Newberry Library in 1991 at the opening of the novel, he has never seen her before, although she has known him most of her life. She has adored him for most of her life because he has been popping in and out of it since she was 6 years old.
This makes it mind bogglingly confusing at times, only to make sense after a coupe of pages or chapters and sometimes not at all. But the riveting he-said, she-said, he thinks – she thinks account makes you feel closer to the characters and keeps the reader engaged. You never notice when the story and the characters creep under your skin.
The book traces the evolution and strength of the love story that is fated to endure the trials and tribulations of Henry hopping around through decades, front and back, disappearing at odd hours with no guarantee of where he will be or when he will return. Sometimes hours, sometimes days (Ahem, does this sound too different from normal men? As a footnote, Niffenegger did write this novel after a series of heartbreaks, we can see the analogy).
The love story is endearing because of its simple, Erich Segal, expression. I don’t pretend to know what love is for everyone. But I do know that knowing everything about that person, especially the faults, but wanting him or her anyway, does define love. The book conjures beautiful images of that definition.
Niffenegger’s depiction of the relationship is romantic and realistic, humorous and intense. Her portrayal of their love reminds me of a parent-child relationship. No matter what the circumstances, parents don’t have the option of breaking up with their children. Henry and Clare play those roles alternately with and for each other. You can see that when you can’t imagine Henry time traveling without Clare to travel to and from.
Their relationship stands the test of daily frustrations, absences; and despite yourself, the longing and uncertainty crawl out of the pages of the book to sting your eyes with tears.
At some point, I did wonder which aspect I enjoyed more: the love story or the opportunity presented by the book to ponder over the functions time can play in our daily lives.
Time does a lot of things for us – it heals the way logic, reason and medicine cannot. It is our companion, always there in the past, present, future…watching us grow, even facilitating achievements and success. Who ever achieved anything without deadlines?
My favorite moment of the book – Henry’s helplessness at not being able to prevent bad events from happening, despite knowing of them prior to their unfolding. His explanation reminds you of the most fundamental laws of life: “There is only one free will, when you are in time, in present. In the past we can only do what we did, and we can only be there if we were there”.
We’ve always been coming to where we are currently since our time began. There is no amount of time travel that could perhaps change that. As much as we may repent/regret/ want to change the past actions, if not those, some other circumstances would have led us to exactly where we are now.
Also, life, in general, is all about timing. As Stacey Charter says, “(with time) the unreachable becomes reachable, unavailable becomes available, unattainable…attainable, and have patience, wait it out. It is all about timing.”
So often, I have found myself frustrated at things not going my way. And each time, have also found that those delays were not denials, that what eventually does come your way was worth the wait.
Coincidentally, I purchased the book when I really wanted to hold onto time. I was at a Barnes and Nobles store, in New York on a bright sunny summer day, with a hotdog stall staring straight at me through the glass door. It was perfect. My flight back to reality was the following day and what I wouldn’t have done for a Vitamin T right then.
Which brings me to the million-dollar question. Henry travels to the past more than the future. Which I thought would be an interesting question to ponder for each one of us. If you could time travel, would you travel in the past or in the future? (Hence the poll below, punch in your preference, this makes for an interesting dipstick)
My guess is this would be a tough one to answer. As you think about this, do read the book, it is certainly an entertaining read… if you are a romantic, definitely. If you enjoy thinking about science fiction stuff and time machines, you may find yourself wondering about the authors’ mechanism for this, but not necessarily find the answers in there.
But most importantly, for those of us, who frequently itch to be in the future or in the past, it provides a good reference to understand that the trajectory of time travel that we are actually used to, of moving one day at a time at the rate of 60 seconds per minute into the future, has a critical function for us. Displacement of this one-way street, backward or forward, might be more distressing than one would think. Vitamin T, like all other pills, could be counter-productive if overdosed.
“We all have our time machines. Some take us back, they’re called memories. Some take us forward, they’re called dreams.” – Douglas Adams