Friday, July 19, 2019

Fiction Review: The Time Traveler's Wife

When one of my book groups chose The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Neffenegger for July, I was happy to read it for a second time. When I first read this unique novel about ten years ago, I laughed and cried and fell in love and immediately proclaimed it as one of my Top Five Books Of All Time (and my husband loved it, too). I finished re-reading it last week, and I still feel the same way. This warm, witty, clever, heartwarming, and sad novel is what I call a "hug it to your chest" book (and yes, I did that again last week).

It's the love story of Henry and Clare, who meet when they are 28 and 20, respectively, in the Newberry Library in Chicago, where Henry works. Only Clare has met Henry many, many times before as a child and teen because Henry is a time traveler. He was a frequent visitor to the field near her home in Michigan during her childhood, so by the time they meet in the Newberry, she knows him very well, though he has never met her before. Henry has no control over his time-traveling; it happens unexpectedly and instantaneously and can send him into the past or (less often) the future. Once the two of them move in together, Clare describes what it's like to live with Henry:
"And what of Henry, my Odysseus? Henry is an artist of another sort, a disappearing artist. Our life together in this too-small apartment is punctuated by Henry's small absences. Sometimes he disappears unobtrusively; I might be walking from the kitchen into the hall and find a pile of clothing on the floor. I might get out of bed in the morning and find the shower running and no one in it. Sometimes it's frightening. I am working in my studio one afternoon when I hear someone moaning outside my door; when I open it I find Henry on his hands and knees, naked, in the hall, bleeding heavily from the head. He opens his eyes, see me, and vanishes. Sometimes I wake up in the night and Henry is gone. In the morning, he will tell me where he's been, the way other husbands might tell their wives a dream they had: "I was in the Selzer Library in the dark, in 1989." Or: "I was chased by a German Shepherd across somebody's backyard and had to climb a tree." Or: "I was standing in the rain near my parents' apartment, listening to my mother sing." I am waiting for Henry to tell me that he has seen me as a child, but so far this hasn't happened. When I was a child, I looked forward to seeing Henry. Every visit was an event. Now every absence is a nonevent, a subtraction, an adventure I will hear about when my adventurer materializes at my feet, bleeding or whistling, smiling or shaking. Now I am afraid when he is gone."

The novel continues to tell the story of Henry and Clare and their love, as they meet (and meet, again) and get married, and move forward - and backward - trying to live normal lives under extraordinary circumstances.

Henry and Clare take turns narrating their story, so the reader gets both perspectives, from the unwilling traveler and from the patiently waiting partner. You might think the novel would get confusing with all those sudden time shifts, but the author handles that well, with date stamps on every section, as well as ages listed, such as Monday, February 2, 1987 (Clare is 15, Henry is 38). I love any kind of time travel story and find it endlessly fascinating to think about "what if...", so I am in heaven with this book, but even if you aren't usually a time travel fan, this novel is, at its core, a love story, one that is achingly sweet and sometimes heartbreaking. With gorgeous writing, the pieces fit together cleverly, as the author slowly builds Henry and Clare's relationship, both in real time and out of it, gradually filling in details of their pasts and their future. Henry's time traveling provides some foreshadowing of what is to come (some of it not good), so you know that certain events are coming from a long way off. Even so, this novel packs a powerful emotional punch. At one point, I was sobbing my heart out, even though I knew what was coming - and had read it before! She just has a talent for making the reader feel all the feelings, sometimes laughing out loud, sometimes feeling your heart swell with joy, and yes, sometimes crying as if you know Henry and Clare personally. Because, by the end of the book, you do know Henry and Clare; they feel like old friends. In fact, I have been missing them this last week. I guess I will have to read this remarkable, magical, transporting novel a third time.

536 pages, Harvest (Harcourt)
Audio by HighBridge

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Listen to a sample of the audio book, narrated by Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole. I read this in print both times, but it sounds good on audio with the two narrators, though you'd have to pay careful attention to the time shifts and ages! Here's a longer sample, where you can hear both Henry's and Clare's voices.

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  1. Yes, Clare and Henry do become friends of the reader. It was a hard book to leave.

    1. Yes, I know I will be eventually reading it a third time!

  2. I have heard really good things about this book, but haven't read it.

    1. It's just SO good, Helen - you should give it a try!

  3. I remember loving 2/3 of this book, but really having a hard time reading that last part--maybe because it hurt so much. Excellent review.

    1. Yes, lots of tears - both my 1st time reading it and my 2nd!