The back of my copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife tells me it’s about “Henry and Clare’s struggle to lead normal lives”. I don’t often find insight through blurbs, but the more I think about this one, the more true it is.
Normal, everyday life as a dominant theme and setting for a book is, in my experience, a very rare beast in science fiction. Disruption, change, alteration of status – that’s the plot motivator for most of the genre; indeed, that’s the basic model for what a plot is. In contrast, this is a book where disruption is the constant and the attempts at normalization is the adventure, not just in an end-goal kind of way, but in all the little interactions along the way.
Looking over my shelves, I can’t see any other book quite like it, structurally. Lifelode comes close, in the way it treasures normality (and features ghosts from other times and places), but even that builds its crises around external intrusions.
The Time Traveler’s Wife begins when Henry meets Clare. Not vice versa, for she has known him, talked to him, learned from him all her life; at least, older, time traveling instances of him. Then we see her meeting him for the first time; again, he knows exactly who she is because he is from the future when he meets her for her first time. The story is not usually so scattered: it generally follows Clare’s timeline, her encounters with Henry and her waiting for him, getting on with the tasks of life.
The fragmentation of their timelines means that each of them must keep major secrets from the other in order to allow the other as much normality as possible. Each knows elements of the other’s future that they do their best to allow the other to discover through living, not telling, when that future becomes the present. Degrees of estrangement, both literal and metaphorical, lie at their relationship’s heart.
Time travel is a kind of genetic defect for Henry, a physical impetus in his life akin to epilepsy, and to a large extent, they can deal with it as a disability. He looks after himself, running, fast and for miles, every day. It’s self-defense training since he never knows when he’ll suddenly end up somewhere else in place and time, naked and in danger. (Time travel is involuntary, and he can bring nothing with him, not even a filling.) Eventually, he has regular appointments with a doctor, trying to help him regularize his timeline or at least reduce triggers. Specific stresses or flickering lights are most likely to trigger an episode. Henry mostly manages to hold down a regular job, but his co-workers know there’s something not quite usual about him, a psychosis which drives him to nakedness in the book stacks apparently.
Normality, or at least the semblance of it, is hard work.
5 thoughts on “The Time Traveler’s Wife – Normality”
Of course if Henry were normal, he never would have met Clare. The story is indeed about how we can value something so mundane as normality when we’re deprived of it, but also about the question – would we be willing to sacrifice the possibility of a normal life in exchange for a great love?
I enjoyed this book very much, until I got about two thirds of the way through. My memories are vague, but I seem to recall it changing from an innovative and interesting story into something rather dull. I’m not of a mind to reread it to pin down what I found so disappointing about the latter section, but I think it had something to do with the author running out of ways to present new aspects of her central idea, of her stretching the story beyond its natural length.
If you want to read a moving and very short story of time travel, then try ‘The Time Machine’ by Alan Moore from an old issue of 2000AD. You can find it in either of the collections ‘Alan Moore’s Twisted Times’ or ‘The Complete Future Shocks’. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_Shocks).
Lois: It’s hard for me to read this story as one of sacrifice for a great love, because, for all the discussion of free will, effectively, neither of them ever had a choice. Their relationship was always going to have happened.
Sean W: The book started failing for me a bit before the frostbite. It was summarizing the present of what we already knew of the past, but missing out little moments which could have cemented it in place. We don’t get the present of when Henry met Clare for the first time then, because we already had it back at the beginning, when its weight wasn’t as poignant, for example.
And then, starting with the frostbite, the whole story took a turn for the blatantly, totally unsubtly symbolic. Henry was afraid of losing his feet and needs them to live; therefore he loses both of them. It would have been a more interesting book had he, say, broken a leg. The cast would always have been left behind. Or the inadvertent party, in which Clare invites all the important people in his life at the most symbolic possible moment.
Really, the journey was the interesting part, not the inevitable ends.
For me, the story failed when she tried to get skiffy with it, the genetic engineering stuff. She went from perfectly sure ground to very shaky ground.
But it didn’t fail completely, and the ending came together very well.