s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: Book: The Time Traveler's Wife

Friday, April 28, 2006

Book: The Time Traveler's Wife

Good, but achingly sad. (Not everyone might agree. I do tend to be a “glass is half empty” sort of person in some situations.)

I found this book in a roundabout way. I came across “Henry de Tamble” (one of the protagonists) on Wikipedia’s
List of Fictional Librarians, and I was intrigued. (The page also includes Barbara Gordon and Rupert Giles – he’s in good company.) Then I ran into the book on Theric’s blog. (Apparently it was also selected for Today’s Book Club, but I’m well out of that loop.)

I started reading the book through Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature one night while working on a project. (It’s generally true of me that the closer a deadline looms, the less I can focus on one thing for any length of time, to the point that I’m rapidly switching between five different activities mere hours before something is due.) I’d work on the project for a bit, then read a couple of pages, then go back to the project.

At some point Amazon politely but firmly informed me that I’d read enough pages, and now I needed to buy the book. (This is a major downside of trying to read books with “Search Inside” – one is inevitably cut off in the middle of an intense passage.) Unlike the
Edgiest of Killer Bunnies, I don’t buy books all willy-nilly, and I certainly wasn’t ready to buy this one without knowing how it ended.

I checked our library, but no copies were available. The U of I is very reluctant to recall or hold books, so I went to the I-Share catalog, a sort of statewide inter-library loan. There were multiple copies listed, but most of them were checked out, missing or already on loan. After a couple of weeks of fruitless waiting (I think my request is still outstanding), I finally thought to check the Urbana Free Library, and was very surprised to see a copy listed as on the shelf. So I went to Urbana Free, applied for a library card, endured a very long lecture from the circulation librarian on how to use a library, and went home with my book. Which I read for the rest of the day and finished the next morning.

Many of the reviews I read said something like “It says that it’s a sci-fi novel, but it’s really a love story.” I have to disagree. It most certainly is sci-fi, it’s just that it’s also a really well-written story, where so much of science fiction gives the genre a bad name. And as tired a motif as time travel is, having been tackled by everyone from H.G. Wells to the writers of Quantum Leap, Audrey Niffenegger manages to find a unique take on it. In her world, time travel is an illness (“chrono-impairment”) and as Henry gets older his body shows the ravages of this condition, as surely as if he had cancer or AIDS.

Yet even as chrono-impairment brings him and Clare (his wife) greater pain than he can imagine, it is also responsible for the greatest joys in their life, and he can’t disentangle the two to decide if his life has been good with some bad parts or bad with some good parts. At one point, Clare finds herself obsessively worrying about him – “[My] thoughts chase each other like those weird fur pieces old ladies used to wear around their necks with the tail in the mouth, circling around until I can’t stand one more minute of it.” Her life seems to run in the same circles. The good things cause bad things which cause good things until you can’t pick apart which is cause and which effect.

Niffenegger wisely decides to forgo all the complications of the past changing the future, or of a “many worlds” theory of decision making. In her world, the past is set in stone and free choice only exists in one’s own present time. (Even this is debatable, since the future doesn’t seem to be changeable, either.) It might be this atheistic determinism that ultimately made the book so sad for me. While some might argue that the book ends on a happy note, I was very much depressed by the thought of a life full of pain without ultimate meaning.

(Also I have the bad habit of imagining that any bad thing happening to anyone else could also happen to me. As such, I am now genuinely concerned that I will marry a time traveler and be constantly stressed and worried. My overactive imagination is same reason that Rough Stone Rolling has been such slow going. If I have to read one more story about Emma Smith, cold and very pregnant, slogging through some Midwestern storm . . .)


At April 29, 2006 4:50 PM, Anonymous casual reader said...

Hey, would you elaborate more on "atheistic determinism"? I mean, what'd you like our real world to be? (I have a more specific question, but it's too long without a preamble...)

At April 29, 2006 7:07 PM, Blogger Becca said...

Sounds good. I'll have to read it.

At April 30, 2006 5:18 PM, Blogger ambrosia ananas said...

I skipped about half of your post for fear of learning too much, but you've convinced me I should read it.

At May 01, 2006 1:27 AM, Blogger Saule Cogneur said...

Come on, everyone needs to be pregnant and slog through a midwestern storm at least once in their life. I plan on it once I graduate college...for real...in 6 years.

At May 01, 2006 4:55 PM, Blogger Melyngoch said...

Oh, good, a recommendation, I'll read it forthwith. And do you know why I'll read it forthwith? Because I just turned my last paper in and I'm FREE! Free like a bird who just got out of jail and is wearing a dark suit and keeping the speed limit so she doesn't go back!

At May 02, 2006 10:21 AM, Blogger Katya said...

casual reader - I find a worldview in which there is neither a God nor free will fairly depressing. It implies that you have no control over your life but that there is also no deeper meaning to the events that take place.

ambrosia - I was pretty careful not to give too much away (and there are plenty of hugh plot points I didn't give away). I think it's safe for you to read the whole post.

all - Were you not paying attention? I said that the book was really sad. Why are you going to go read it now? (So confused . . .) And, lest I get into trouble with my book recommendations again, I must needs warn the masses that there is a lot of sex in The Time Traveler's Wife, so you may wish to close your eyes during those parts, or something.

At May 02, 2006 2:22 PM, Blogger Petra said...

Meh. I enjoyed it at the time, and now remember next to nothing about it several years down the road (2, to be precise, which makes me feel a) hip to book trends and b) old).

Then again, I'm not quite so susceptible to sad...

At May 03, 2006 2:09 AM, Blogger Lady Steed said...

Loved this book. Highly recommend it.

While reading your post on it had the thought, "Isn't it funny how some people are so very good at writing that thing called a 'book report'." Then realized some people do actually write 'book reports' for a living only they call them 'book reviews.'

This was an excellent review. I wouldn't worry about marrying a time jumping man though.

At May 14, 2006 11:34 PM, Blogger Th. said...


Yeah--and she should know.

Anyway, I waited to finish this post until I finished the book and yes, you all should read it. (Although probably no one but Katya will ever notice this comment.) I loved it loved it loved it.

And Katya, if you're looking for more fictional librarians, Niffennegger wrote a great short story for Zoetrope: All-Story recently, but I can't find my issue and their website is down. It was great though. Part of the reason I felt safe buying the book.

At July 09, 2011 2:33 PM, Blogger levi said...

Hi Katya,
You might like my blog entry on the physics of Time-Traveller's Wife. Find it at www.eatnails.net/?p=3.


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