I recently reread this book, and I was planning to wait on writing about it until I could see the movie, but the people I see movies with are either like “Are you nuts? I saw it the first instant it came out!” or else “I can’t watch it! The book is too precious to me!” or else (more rarely) “Looks mushy. Let’s go see (500) Days of Summer instead.” (And we did. And it was excellent. But I am still curious about The Time Traveler’s Wife film, because I loved the book so much.)
The Time Traveler’s Wife I feel like is famous enough that I don’t need to give a synopsis? But here one is anyway: Henry is a time-traveler. In times of stress or just for no reason at all, he vanishes from his own time and goes somewhere else – could be his childhood, his wife’s childhood, his future, or (we don’t see much of this but) any time at all. He meets his wife Clare when he is 28 and she is 20, but Clare has known him since she was six years old. So this is the story of their relationship from start to finish.
I like so many things about this book! I love it that Clare and Henry start out by having a completely different story of their relationship – to Clare it’s something she has always known (destiny!), and to Henry it’s a complete, unexpected, amazing surprise. Then gradually, as he spends more and more time with Clare at all different ages, her version of the story becomes the true one for him, too. I also like it how they create each other – Clare has grown up with Henry, and (like it or not!) he shapes her into who she is; and when she meets him “in real life”, he is able to see himself the way she sees him, and try to become that person. There is a scene where Clare goes dancing with Henry, not long after they meet in real time, and runs into an ex of his in the bathroom, who says all sorts of unpleasant things about him. Shaken, she wanders back out and runs into a version of Henry from farther on, a Henry she recognizes and knows. This Henry says of his past self:
“When I met you, I was wrecked, blasted, and damned, and I am slowly pulling myself together because I can see that you are a real human being and I would like to be one too. And I have been trying to do it without you noticing, because I still haven’t figured out that all pretense is useless between us. But it’s a long way from the me you’re dealing with here in 1991 to me, talking to you right now from 1996. You have to work at me; I can’t get there alone.”
I love that. They invent each other! It’s brilliant! Slightly weird, but brilliant.
I like the way the book is structured, in little slices of their lives, the present and past and future. There are brief moments between them that are really lovely, and not nearly enough of the gentle, quiet times together that Henry says he loves the best. Not enough, but that’s why it works – because, of course, it never is enough (for them), and Henry always vanishes, and leaves Clare behind waiting (like Penelope, she says) (“yet they say all the yarn she spun in Ulysses’s absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths”). The book has its fair share of unhappiness, and you can see it curving in that direction as Clare and Henry carry on with their relationship.
Also, oh! Here’s something else that is good! Although the book is about a relationship, and in that sense it’s a romance, it doesn’t do any of the romantic thing of skirting around physical stuff. I’m not talking about just sex, though there is sex, but about the physicality of Henry’s condition, their difficulties in having a baby, and – er, well, other depressing things that happen later on in the book, which I won’t spoil for you even though it made me really sad. Henry’s condition brings Clare and Henry together, but it also makes them suffer terribly. So the fact that his condition has brought them together feels less like destiny and more like the law of averages – it can’t be all bad, but there is a lot of permanent, bad stuff too.
I wish I could excerpt all the scenes I love best, but it would take too long. I love it when Clare runs into a future version of Henry when she’s out dancing, and when Clare finds her mum’s poem, and when Henry meets Alba for the first time, and the very last scene of the whole book. I think those are my favorite ones.