Future Classics: #4

The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)

The Time Traveler's Wife cover

An impressively high, but in retrospect unsurprising, placing for Niffenegger’s first novel, about a man with “chrono-displacement disorder” and the woman whose life intertwines with his. Helen Brown’s review in The Telegraph sums up the novel’s appeal:

It comes as no surprise that Niffenegger is an Anne Rice fan. Although her prose is generally much better than Rice’s, she taps into the same teenager lurking in all of us. The one that reads Cosmo and Stephen King, while listening to the Buzzcocks and trying to get high on hairspray. Like Interview with the Vampire, this novel makes us crave a wilder life in which we have hip, secret reason to feel special and alienated.

But as the story progresses into marriage we realise that, of course, we don’t really want to know when and how the people we love will die, or what tragedies our children will face without us, any more than Rice’s bloodsucking Louis wants to live forever without sunlight, at the expense of others. We don’t want a partner who slips from our lives unaccountably, to return shaking and drenched with blood. Having swept us from our quotidian lives with a great whoosh of escapist fantasy, Niffenegger finally reminds us how good it is to let existence tick along both more and less predictably.

(Except I think there is, actually, more to it than that, and it’s an open question to what extent the novel is romantic, to what extent creepy, and to what extent the line between the two is a matter of where you stand.)

Other reviews: Natasha Walter in The Guardian; David Abrams at January Magazine; Charlie Lee-Potter in The Independent; and a not entirely convinced Adam Roberts at Infinity Plus.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

7 thoughts on “Future Classics: #4

  1. I’ve only seen the film, but the story struck me as somewhat unhealthy: man travels through time and stalks woman from when she was a kid.

  2. Exactly. Except, it’s a moebius: he doesn’t have control over where he arrives, and the reason he keeps arriving near the child ie that he knows the adult woman; and the reason he knows the adult woman is because she remembers meeting him as a child … I think if you imagine the relationship from inside it can seem romantic, and if you stand back and see it from outside it can seem creepy, and the novel (and the film, which I liked more than most people did) does both.

  3. Haven’t seen the film, but everything I’ve heard about it suggests that it loses quite a lot of the nuance contained in the book. Whether or not the odd nature of the central relationship is creepy or not is kind of an open question in the book; it’s well-handled there.

  4. You put your finger on the reason I didn’t vote for this book; I felt that the central relationship was, frankly, downright creepy, and I didn’t think that the book knew that. Although having read a little more Niffenegger since, I’m now less sure.

  5. My GF was dragged to see the film by some colleagues and she had exactly the same response. Her colleagues had simply not noticed anything creepy… they saw it as simply romantic. Love as destiny. Love as inescapable.

    Mind you, the ‘ancient soulful vampire falls in love with high school girl’ trope is also quite creepy and nobody complains about that either…

    I can’t help but wonder whether my inability to understand this particular set of tropes might not be a function of my sexual identity. For example, I can imagine that for certain people the fact that the likes of Edward and Angel are dashing older men might be more important than the fact that they’re eerie sexual predators who should really be dating someone of their own age.

  6. The ‘creepy’ nature of the romance is lessened if the relative timelines are unpacked. I have seen it suggested that Henry pursues this child, but in fact when he first meets her she is 22 years old and approaches him. He has already become her lover before he meets the child. He also makes several very clear and attempts to push her away in her teens when she becomes sexually attracted to him. Henry at least is aware of the dangers inherent in their relationship, if young Claire isn’t.
    Later the moment when the mature Claire suddenly realises she knows exactly how Henry dies is genuinely moving.

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