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!
Me: Now they’re breaking into the Army Surplus store on Belmont!
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.