The Magazine

See you Later, Dear

Audrey Niffenegger pens a love story for the ages.

Nov 17, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 10 • By CYNTHIA GRENIER
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The Time Traveler's Wife

by Audrey Niffenegger

MacAdam Cage, 518 pp., $25

AUDREY NIFFENEGGER has written a singularly beguiling novel with an unexpectedly touching love story--even though, as she explains, her hero Henry and his wife Clare first met when he was thirty-six years old and she was six. The working out of that little thirty-year problem is the burden, and the charming success of "The Time Traveler's Wife."

The prologue sets the tone for Henry's strange bounces through time and Clare's patient waiting for him, never knowing at what age or what moment he will reappear in her life. As she says, "It's hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he's okay. It's hard to be the one who stays." Then we shift to Henry, who explains, "It feels exactly like one of those dreams in which you suddenly realize that you have to take a test you haven't studied for and you aren't wearing any clothes. And you've left your wallet at home."

Time travel has been a staple plot device for a while, now. Mark Twain's 1889 "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" set in place the basic structure of backward travel: a modern man cast into the past for mostly comic but also a little bit of serious effect. At one moral pole of backward travel stands Ray Bradbury's 1952 story "A Sound of Thunder," a classic claim of the fragility of history, in which a tourist goes dinosaur-hunting on a time-traveling safari, accidentally kills a single butterfly, and returns to find the present badly altered. At the other pole stands the 1985 film "Back to the Future," a classic in its own way, about ultimately benevolent time travel and the chance of going backwards to make things better. You can find the happy view echoed in, say, the 1993 film "Groundhog Day," with Bill Murray awakening in the same day, over and over again, until he finally gets it right. And the darker vision is manifest in Ken Grimwood's 1987 "Replay," a rather underrated novel about a man who awakens in his eighteen-year-old body after a fatal heart attack at age forty-three--and tries to replay his life.

Meanwhile, forward travel through time quickly became a standard way of writing utopian literature, from Samuel Madden's 1733 "Memoirs of the Twentieth Century" to Edward Bellamy's 1887 American classic "Looking Backward." But forward travel spawned its darker versions, too, from H.G. Wells's 1895 "The Time Machine" to Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 "Slaughterhouse-Five."

STILL, the science-fiction constraints and logic-puzzle burdens spoil most of this genre. Only a handful of books escape: Jack Finney's 1970 "Time and Again," perhaps; Connie Willis's two classics, the comic 1998 "To Say Nothing of the Dog" and the moving 1992 "Doomsday Book;" and, now, Audrey Niffenegger's "The Time Traveler's Wife."

Henry and Clare progress through the book, more or less in alternating time frames. For Henry--the unwilling traveler who, from time to time, inexplicably finds himself naked in some other time--this can be difficult. He is apt, for instance, to exist simultaneously at two different ages, as early on he is trying to explain his time adventures under the heading: "Saturday, January 2, 1988, 4:03 A.M. / Sunday, June 16, 1968, 10:46 P.M. (Henry is 24, and 5)."

On one trip, he begins by coming home half drunk from a night of dancing, fumbling for his keys, and falling down to his knees--only to look up to see a red, illuminated EXIT sign. As his eyes adjust, he sees tigers, cavemen with long spears, cavewomen wearing strategically modest skins, and wolfish dogs. Heart racing, for a long liquor-befuddled moment he thinks, "I've gone all the way back to the Stone Age--until I realize that EXIT signs tend to congregate in the twentieth century."

There is humor in this curious tale, but bleak moments as well. In some of Henry's time travels (all in a fairly limited time frame) he encounters people--in particular a beautiful, very unhappy woman named Ingrid--whose fate he knows but can do nothing about. And towards the end something quite ghastly happens to him on one of his trips.

But from the time Clare reenters his life as an adult, there is no doubt but that they are in love--a deep, abiding love that sees them through courtship, marriage, miscarriages, and the birth of a daughter, Alba, who, it seems, inherits her father's strange propensity for traveling about in time.