Before I even get started, I want to go on record as saying that I really enjoyed the book I'm about to review, as evidenced by the fact that I read it in three days (which is fast for me these days). But, while I hate to split hairs, this novel ultimately fell a bit flat for me.
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (#3)
First, let me tell you what I loved about The Time Traveler's Wife.
I loved the premise: one of the main characters, Henry, has a genetic disorder called Chrono-Impairment that results in him frequently becoming "dislocated in time." In other words, he inadvertently time travels, mostly within his lifetime but occasionally outside of it.
I loved that Niffenegger speedily and deftly explains away all the nerdy space-time continuum mumbo-jumbo that can bog down your average sci-fi story. Instead, she focuses on the story itself.
And I love the story itself. It's a love story, and I'm realizing something about myself, which is that I love love stories, so long as they're not of the Harlequin variety. The lovers are the time traveler, Henry, and his wife, Clare, who have been meeting in time since Clare was six and Henry was 35, but whose story in regular linear time begins when they are 20 and 28, respectively. Given Henry's tendencies toward temporal displacement, they meet at all kinds of other ages: when Clare is 35 and Henry is 30, when Clare is 18 and Henry is 43, when Clare is 82 and Henry is 40... you get the idea. In each meeting, sometimes Clare is the teacher, sometimes Henry, but the overarching idea is that, in a relationship, each person shapes the other until -- given enough time -- each becomes even more the idealized self that their lover sees. This is normal for any happy relationship, I think, but it's exponentially magnified in Clare and Henry's case.
Did that make sense? I seem to be having a hard time getting this idea out, though it's crystal clear in my head. If you managed to follow all that perfectly, good for you, because things aren't going to get any clearer ahead.
Now, here's where the novel fell flat:
One of the things I love about reading is the little movie screen that runs in my head with my version of the story playing... the Doppelganger cut, if you will. The problem with The Time Traveler's Wife (prepare yourself for the hair-splitting I warned you about) is that Niffenegger does an almost too-thorough job of providing all the filmic details. In fact, it wouldn't take much work to handily convert this book to a screenplay. At best, this merely deflates my own role in reading the book; I feel like my job is to sit back and visualize the story exactly as it's told to me, and nobody likes to feel unimportant. But at worst, Niffenegger follows some movie conventions that are somewhat jarring -- nestled as they are in a fairly original and compelling narrative -- in their triteness.
I twigged to all this with one telling comment Henry makes, referring to an all-black outfit that Clare has picked out for him as something straight out of a Wim Wenders film. That's when I realized why this novel had been giving me déjà vü, and why in fact I kept visualizing Nicolas Cage as Henry: this book is a lot like a Wim Wenders film. Well, Wenders by way of Hollywood... sort of like the City of Angels as opposed to Wings of Desire.
From the almost baroque descriptions of various elements of the Chicago cityscape that provide the story's backdrop, to the more baroque references to opera and classical music, which -- along with punk -- form the novel's soundtrack, it's easy to see movie adaptation as you move through this book.
Where the adaptation bogs down is in the unfortunately clichéd cast of secondary and tertiary characters: the precocious kid, the down-to-earth black cook who's more like a mother than Clare's own distant mother, the stuffy wealthy brother and father, the asshole jock, the sassy Korean neighbour who helps raise Henry after his mother dies, and so on. In Niffenegger's hands, and to her credit, you can almost forget that these are stock characters who are almost as predictable as the story's ending, which you can see barrelling toward you when you're about a third of the way through the book.
Now, I don't want to suggest that Niffenegger wrote her book in such a way to make it appealing to Hollywood. That idea is cynical and unfair. What I think is more likely the case is that the author is a product of her times, as we all are, and our times are dominated by movies and television. It's probably not surprising that these are powerful influences when one is trying to tell a story. Crackpot theory? I don't know. Discuss.
The unfortunate consequence of all these seemingly small, nitpicky details is that, collectively, they shanghai what could be a great story, possibly one for the ages, and reduce it to merely a really good story. But all that said, I'd still recommend this book to anyone who, like me, has a jones for unconventional love stories. Because even if it's not a great story, it's still a really good story.