Wednesday, November 7, 2007

BookThoughts: The Time Traveler's Wife

My book club is reading The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, for our next meeting, which is on Sunday. I started listening to the audiobook on Monday, but I think I am going to make it; as of today I'm about halfway through. So far it is an entertaining read, but I do think it is flawed in a few places.

I suppose my main issue with the book is that I'm not sure about the relationship between the two main characters, Henry and Clare. They are the titular time traveler and his wife, and their story is an odd one. Henry has a rare genetic defect that causes him to spontaneously time travel, jumping through time with no control over where/when he will end up, and no idea of how long it will take him to dissolve back into his present. These trips in time begin with him appearing, totally naked, in surroundings that may or may not be familier to him. Henry finds himself having to hide, pickpocket, brawl, or run from unfriendly strangers on a regular basis.

Sometimes he meets his past-self on these trips. In one scene, a present Henry, aged 15, and a Henry from 3 months in the future meet, and engage in what the author describes as "inflagrante delicto," which, Henry tells the reader, is something everybody would take the opportunity to do, if only they could.'s a given that every person, if given the opportunity to do so, would bone him or herself? Really? Because that is sooo not the first thing that comes to my mind when I contemplate the possibility of meeting a future version of myself. Would it be considered masterbation? Incest? Does it indicate one might be homosexual? It's a weird thing to consider.

Aaaanyway, the relationship between Henry and Clare. Right. It's difficult to summarize concisely, so this might be a little confusing, but I'll give it a shot. Basically, beginning when she is 6, up until she is 18, Clare is visited, as a girl, by a much older, time displaced Henry. A Henry who, in his present, is already married to Clare. In real time, Henry is 8 years older than Clare--he meets for the first time when she is 20 and he is 28. However, she meets him for the first time when she is 6, and he is in his thirties. Henry becomes a fixture of Clare's childhood: they have a secret meeting place where she leaves clothes and food for him, he helps her with her homework and teaches her French. He plays with her. He gives her a list of dates that describe when he will appear in her time. As she grows up into a young woman, Clare falls in love with Henry and tries with increasing determination to get him to have sex with her. He refuses...until she is 18. When she finally meets him in real time, he is obviously very confused; her childhood is filled with memories of him, and he has never seen her before.

My feelings of unease about this story are difficult to condense into words. I guess "creeped out" says it best. I think what the author is trying to get at is that the souls of these two people are so entwined, the number of years between them is irrelevant. I have to wonder though, would you really be able to fall in love with someone you met at age 6, who essentially played a part in raising you? There is a scene in the book, where Clare is 13 and Henry is 36 or so, and Henry momentarily loses track of how old Clare is. He has trouble distinguishing her from the Clare of his present, his 28 year old wife. It's certainly an interesting premise for a story, but I think the author misses by making Clare's early relationship with Henry too comfortable.

Another problem I have is that it feels to me that Henry is always in a position of dominance and "I know best" condescension over Clare. Her love for him constantly takes the form of submissive patience and deference. I feel that this is a miss as well. Clare grows up to be an artist, fashioning huge sculptures out of paper, and I have a hard time believing that a woman with the imagination and fire it takes to be an artist would behave so meekly. It's as though she is forever taking the role of the little girl, and he the much older man in the meadow. I dislike the idea of him "grooming" her to be the perfect little wifey for him, although I don't know if that is an intentional implication.

Anyway, I still have a lot to go, so maybe the dynamics of the characters will change somewhat as they get older. As I said, it is an entertaining story, and some of the scenes the author sets up are quite clever and funny. At any rate, I think we can definitely have an interesting discussion about it, which is the important thing, I guess.

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