Why I liked The Time Traveler’s Wife: you had me at “Clare”

Artist’s Snack Shop

Audrey Niffenegger, 2003.

I have rarely read a book that interested me so much in the first 40 pages. Audrey Niffenegger might as well have been writing this book to me. Here’s the first few things that sucked me into the book:

1. The heroine’s name is Clare, and she spells it like me. So naturally, I want to read about how smart, talented, beautiful and wonderful she is.

2. Clare lives at Hoyne and Addison. That’s exactly where I lived when I first moved to Chicago. It’s like Niffenegger is writing about me and my fabulous romantic life! Oooh, keep reading.

3. This sentence: “I now have an erection that is probably tall enough to ride some of the scarier rides at Great America without a parent.” First, that’s funny. Second, “Great America” is exactly how a Chicago kid would refer to our local amusement park, regardless of Six Flags’ marketing. So the novel is not just set in Chicago, Audrey Niffenegger knows the city well and is writing her characters as Chicagoans. OK, you got me. Read read read.

So I’m sitting on the living room floor with the sidekick, reading while we’re playing Scrabble and watching Life of Mammals, and this is a transcript of me reading the next few chapters:

Me: Hey, they’re going to the Field Museum!
Sidekick: Yeah?
Me: Now they’re breaking into the Army Surplus store on Belmont!
Sidekick: Huh.
Me: And they’re eating at Ann Sathers!
Sidekick: Wait, did you write this book?

After the Clare-trapping entertainment of the first few chapters, the novel tells an interesting story with big neat ideas and weepy romantic drama. The time travel in the book is well-thought-out and thoroughly explored. I love to see a single magical or sci-fi idea applied to the normal world and then investigated in detail. Niffenegger did a lot of work getting her chronologies straight and thinking about what uncontrollable time travel would do to a pair of lives.

But as in the best science fiction, the book isn’t just about time travel. Niffenegger uses time travel as a metaphor for anything that can interrupt a relationship: illness, work, circumstance. The book is full of all kinds of ideas about the transience and permanence of love, with sex as the grounding force that keeps the couple together. Time travel is also explored as a metaphor for memory and imagination, the way we live in bits of other moments all the time, wandering in our minds from the present instead of inhabiting it and paying attention to what’s going on now.

Niffenegger obviously put a lot of thought into her ideas, and wrote details into the book that build on her main themes. For example, Clare makes paper and Henry’s a librarian at the Newberry Library, So she’s creating new blank sheets for recording something, and he’s at the other end of the book spectrum, working with historical collections of records on paper. This mirrors their relationship, where they’re coming at their marriage from opposite ends, each knowing part of the story because he’s been coming from his future to tell her about it. She’s the blank page and he’s the story already told, making her into the woman he knows she will be because when he first met her she told him he would.

Henry and Clare are idealized lovers who turn each other into the person they want and use their mad time skillz to create a temporarily perfect life. They’re not at all regular people with ordinary lives. Their characters are not gritty or realistic, but that’s fine in this book. The narrative is engrossing, there’s some wonderful images, and it’s really fun to read an mythic love story set in modern Chicago.

The main thing I didn’t like: Why is the man always the traveler? Why does the woman always have to stay home? I always hated how Penelope got stuck at home waiting for Odysseus. I’m sure it was great being queen of her own island and doing whatever she wanted because the king wasn’t around, but nobody wrote an epic poem about that. I find man=wanderer and woman=home a tedious repetition of traditional gender role stereotyping. Henry and Clare are kind of metaphors of ideal lovers, rather than actual people, and the book is otherwise awesome, so this didn’t bother me that much. But speaking as a woman who moved to another continent 3 days after her wedding – with the husband’s prior approval, of course – I’d rather read about a woman going on crazy adventures while the man stays home. I guess I should just write my own story.

8 thoughts on “Why I liked The Time Traveler’s Wife: you had me at “Clare”

  1. Megan

    I forgot that this book was set in Chicago, as I didn’t know crap about Chicago back when I first read it. Perhaps a re-read is in order.

    I couldn’t quite put my finger on it when I was reading the book, but I was bothered by the fact that Henry seemed to have the upper hand in that he already knew Clare’s future. It seemed unfair, and I didn’t like that it didn’t bother Clare at least a little.

    Oh, and I think Niffenegger grew up in Evanston. . .

  2. Clare Post author

    I agree that Henry had the upper hand in the relationship. He had a sort of inconvenient superpower, and Clare had to spent pretty much her whole life accommodating it. When their relationship starts in her present Niffenegger goes to some lengths to show that Clare has the advantage because of what future-Henry has told her, but that doesn’t last very long. Clare is certainly very passive and accepting of her destiny (if you want to call it that), which makes sense because Henry basically raised her to be his wife. She’s more an ideal-wife figure than a real person – she doesn’t ever do anything that isn’t in reference to Henry, and she never tries to express free will or strike out for herself. The one time she and Henry to try to change the future (she signs the drawing, when she hadn’t in his version) she chickens out and cuts off the signature so that they’ll never know if she changed anything. Which I thought was telling – who cuts their name off art? Cypher people, that’s who.

  3. hannahb

    I have just discovered your blog! I am amused by the enjoyable way you write, and glad to see that you have great taste in books. I haven’t read all of the above post, since I have yet to read The Time Traveler’s Wife and didn’t want to be spoiled, but the first half of the post is highly amusing and insightful. I’ve added you to my blogroll, I hope that’s alright! ~Hannah

  4. Clare Post author

    Thanks, Hannah! I’m glad you like my blog & I’d be pleased to be in your blogroll. I’m actually a book omnivore and a read a lot of crap, but I usually don’t write about the bad ones, so my taste seems better than it is. I should make more of an effort to write amusing diatribes about the crappy books.

  5. Megan

    You know, I just realized that even the title gives Henry the upper hand. She’s not Clare, she’s Henry’s wife. Obviously his time travel shapes who she is, but I’d like her to be MORE than the time traveler’s wife.

  6. Valerie

    This is one of my favorite books. I especially like that it takes place in Chicago. The Newberry Library is a cool place to check out, if you haven’t already.

    Audrey teaches a writing class at Columbia College in Chicago. How cool is that?

  7. Amy

    Loved the book. I don’t really think of Henry’s time traveling as a super power. To me it’s an affliction since he has a predetermined role in time. It certainly doesn’t seem like a power to know one’s own time of death and be completely helpless in the face of the information.

    After all is said and done, I think Clare got most of the benefit out of the relationship. Perhaps it’s my perspective as a single woman, but not having to struggle with finding romance throughout her life should be considered a blessing in some ways and I think the author made an effort to make that point through the negative experiences Clare has with dating. For the most part I think of Clare as a character at peace.

    I wonder if there will be a “The Time Traveler’s Daughter”. That should satisfy your desire to have a female lead in the adventure. Perhaps she will opt out of “getting fixed”. The alluded to the idea that she would be able to control her time travel… could be good or could be horrible.

  8. Clare Post author

    Amy – I think you’re right about the blessing of not having to find romance. It’s sort of a cultural myth, or hope, that if you wait long enough the perfect man will come along. The book explores what it would be like if you grew up in the absolute certainty that one day you were going to be married to your true love. In some ways it makes Clare a static character, though – she spends most of her time waiting for something she knows is going to happen.


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