We are driving down a fairly ugly stretch of eastern Washington highway, and I am grateful that my dog is standing on the middle console between my husband and I, because maybe that means he won’t notice that I am surreptitiously bawling my eyes out. I’ve reached the end of The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and although I knew what was coming, I am shocked and sick with grief.
Books don’t ordinarily get to me like this one has. In fact, the only other time I can remember out-and-out crying over a book was my first time through Where the Red Fern Grows, and at the time I was convinced I’d caught a virus, because come ON, I just didn’t cry over books like that. I’m not a crier, period. But those stupid heroic coonhounds got to me, and so have Henry and Clare.
Time Traveler is the story about Henry, a “chronologically impaired” librarian who spontaneously and unwillingly time travels. [Ed. note: You could probably come up with a really hilarious webcomic or story based on that sentence.] If you’ve read Job: A Comedy of Justice (a great favorite of mine) you’ve been exposed to this phenomenon before, although with slightly different quirks. In Heinlein’s novel, the time traveler can take with him anything he is clutching. In Niffenegger’s, only Henry himself time travels. Anything around him – people, clothing, even things as firmly attached as dental fillings – is left behind. Another difference is that Heinlein’s time travelers proceed from place to place, not returning to the place they were before; Henry yo-yo’s back to the “present” at the end of every trip. His unique circumstances allow him to visit with past and future selves; he is also able to meet with his wife, Clare, as a young girl.
It’s not a science fiction story; I’m not sure what it is that it is. It’s patently a love story, and what makes it such a good love story is that it’s not rose-tinted. Henry and Clare have a completely realistic series of average-couple problems, aggravated by the special complications of Henry’s condition. Theirs is a believable courtship and marriage, which is probably why it rings so close and true to my heart. When something bad happens in a romance novel, it doesn’t resonate, because that’s not a real relationship in the first place. When something bad happens in a book like this, it feels like it could have been happening to you.
(My husband points out that he could tell things were going badly in the book because I kept turning to him and repeating, “I’m glad you’re not a time traveler.”)
So yes: a love story. But also a science, or perhaps a chrono-philosophy, story. Time Traveler touches on the nature of time, about morality and situational ethics, about cause-and-effect, and about responsibility of knowledge. It is also arguably a book about theology and spirituality, although the characters are not at all religious. The issue of predestination is a major player in this novel. It’s a story about survival, and the way people react to differences and unfamiliarity. It is a story about running. And by the end of the story, Alfred Lord Tennyson is whispering ’tis better to have loved and lost… in your ear, and if you are like me at that moment, you’ll want to slug him in the mouth and tell him how wrong he was.
This isn’t a particularly challenging book, and it is so engaging and well-written that it will seamlessly suck you into its reality and keep you motivated to read it in a single sitting. (You may, if you share my geeky inclinations, be tempted to pause from time to time to map out the chronological loops. I wouldn’t recommend trying; you’ll give yourself a headache.) If I haven’t already made it abundantly clear, though, it packs a helluva wallop. This isn’t the book to read on the subway on the way to a job interview or a date. It probably isn’t the book to read while your significant other is on a business trip, either. Ideally, you’re going to want a warm blanket, a pint of ice cream, a box of kleenex, and your loved one’s knee within ready reach for this sucker.
Thinking about The Time Traveler’s Wife has led me to two questions.
Why is this a book club book? I’ve definitely read books that begged discussion. A popular example is the Harry Potter series; it’s great fun to sit around with other fans and discuss the hidden messages, philosophies, motivations, possibilities. But there are other books that don’t need dissecting, that in fact suffer by it. Some books are intellectual exercises, and other books are emotional experiences. The Time Traveler’s Wife should be, in my opinion, felt rather than analysed. It washed over and into me. I turned past the end-of-book acknowledgments and found myself reading several pages of inane book club questions, pushing the reader to probe the characters and their relationship. I was – well, I was offended. It felt like standing at someone’s deathbed, moments after the fact, and cross-examining the deceased’s loved ones on minutia of the life spent. Try as I might, I cannot imagine sitting around discussing this book. Sitting in a room together clutching hot cups of tea pretending not to be crying again, damnit while desperately searching for topics of conversation that will get this book off my mind – I can imagine doing that. But not dissecting it. Not analysing it. That’s saying something for me; I analyse everything.
Which brings me to… what defines a “good” book? In one sense, I’m entirely ready to bestow that label here. I was glued to Time Traveler’s Wife for the length of time it took me to read it, and two days later it’s still haunting me. It was beautifully written, impeccably crafted. It’s definitely a “top shelf” book. And yet – I hate it. I hate what it has done to me. I felt physically ill after I finished it, and finally started reading another book to get the first out of my head. If I stop reading something else, though, this story slips right back into my brain and kicks me in the gut. Can a book be GOOD if it makes you feel heartsick for days? Or is it good by definition if it can have that kind of impact? Is there a distinction – or should there be – between a well-written book and a good book?
Don’t get me wrong. This is a new favorite – and, incidentally, one of my forgotten/unread books I challenged myself to read, so it’s a doubly good choice.