Review: The Time Travler's Wife
As always, spoilers abound below.
If you thought Twilight was a romance for the ages, The Time Traveler's Wife is right up your alley. If, on the other hand, you rail against Twilight on Tumblr for its sparkling portrayal of an abusive relationship, you might want to give this book a pass. At least Edward let Bella have most of a childhood before he started molesting her.
I have a few issues with this book, which I finally read because I saw Audrey Niffenegger speak with Neil Gaiman at Bard College. I had previously assumed that The Tome Traveler's was a romance novel with a science fiction spin. The author disabused me of this notion by the second chapter. There is nothing romantic in this.
One of my main issues is that it has a cast almost complete in its repugnance. The only exceptions that jump out are Kimy, the Asian neighbor/landlady of Henry's broken father who defaults to a universal mothering role, and Alba, who gets a pass because she is never older than ten years old at any part we read.
The supposed hero of this story, Henry, is a pedophile, in behavior if not name. While I love Lolita, I do because the reader is not supposed to regard Humbert as a good person. On the other hand, Niffenegger clearly wants the reader to love and approve of her creation. Henry's only possible defense is that he literally waited until Clare's eighteenth birthday (when he is nearly double her age) to have vaginal sex with her. Prior to that, he grooms her to be his future wife through a course of pseudo-sexual and psychological abuse that would make any career child molester proud. "You can never tell anyone about the naked man who will visit you in the woods through your whole childhood; your parents will never understand our love and you will love me" is nearly a thing he says to her from the time she turns six. Yes, he appears naked to her when she is six years old and feels no real embarrassment or horror at this fact. In his mind, since twenty-something Clare has sex with him, tyke Clare should have no problem with it. He just doesn't want to "spook" her too soon. He doesn't physically threaten her, but he is violent and erratic enough in her presence that I wouldn't be surprised if she had Stockholm Syndrome. A future sexual relationship justifies all his action in his mind. (Though, given that he is a time traveler, who is to say that Clare didn't hate him when she first met him and he just abuses his chrono-displacement to sufficiently brainwash her? She is never given any real choice in loving him, just assured that she will so she might as well relent.) He spends a fair amount of time kissing and caressing her once she turns fifteen. He is well beyond adulthood at this point, but that still seems somehow fine to him because, again, she will eventually be his wife. Besides, she clearly wanted it the whole time, right, Henry?
It is impossible to say that Henry didn't warp Clare utterly under the masking of "true love." I spent most of the book wondering who Clare would be were it not for this naked adult who kept diverting her childhood until it was all about her waiting chastely for him. Of course, since he begins grooming her at six, there is almost no Clare before Henry intervenes. One wonders how keenly Henry would greet the naked man who told Alba at six that she was destined to service him sexually for the rest of his life. Given how he otherwise behaves, I am fairly certain he would have genuinely murdered said person and then crowed about it until he vanished from a jail cell. It is textually evident that there are multiple warrants for his arrest for deeds from streaking to attempted murder, though this plot thread is abandoned. Even with his chrono-displacement, I am positive that police would be keenly searching for the man repeatedly making them look like fools and then exposing himself to strangers before assaulting them.
He retains his morals about not using his time travel-borne knowledge for personal gain right until the moment where Clare pouts about wanting a bigger studio. Then, he makes sure they win the lottery and they then commit insider trading to become richer still. Clare comes from ostentatious wealth, so it boils down to rich WASPs getting even richer. This hardly endears either of the characters to me. Clare, too, lets the issue drop because she would much rather have a shiny new house than a code of ethics that includes her facing any difficulty greater than a time traveling spouse.
Beyond this, Henry is an atrocious person under the auspices of "protecting himself." As noted above, he regularly violently mugs people so he can steal their clothes and money, since genetic time travel precludes clothing. While it is certainly inconvenient to appear stark naked (it does eventually lose him his feet, more because Niffenegger needed to hobble Henry so she could end the book than because it made medical sense), she shows that he is more than capable of much less harmfully shoplifting. However, it's apparently funnier to show him brutalize a homosexual and then talk about the flamboyant clothing he is wearing (he then savages another person who makes fun of his stolen clothing), which suggests a latent homophobia on the author's part that is about thirty years out of fashion.
I can almost forgive Clare for her many flaws. First, she is the child of unconscionable privilege, so she is insulated from want or need. Like many in that position, she doesn't seem to have developed empathy for people in a lower tax bracket. Then, Henry allows her to abdicate responsibility for decision-making for her entire life prior to meeting him in "real time" because he already knows much that will happen to her. She moves largely passively through her life, just mooning over Henry. She acts only to move the plot along, not out of any volition of her own. She goes on a date with a truly psychopathic boy from her school who beats her and burns her with cigarettes for being a "cock tease," giving Henry a good reason to brutally assault this junior serial killer. It makes no sense that this boy would act this way or that Clare would let him or that Clare's parents would say and do nothing about it (again, they have an estate with live-in servants, so I am positive they would care enough about their visibly wrecked daughter to sic the cops on someone). Beyond a beating while taped to a tree, the boy suffers no consequences. I am sure Clare wouldn't see any connection between her attack and the next dozen girls he tortures. As is the case with Henry's life, Clare exists only in the service of Henry's plot. We never know a Clare without Henry's fingerprints all over her personality. In disliking her, I largely just dislike Henry all over again, since he is the puppeteer in this abusive relationship.
Gomez is practically a stock character in this farce, with no real purpose in the world beyond his utility to Henry's plot. He lusts for Clare and mistrusts Henry (with good reason, given that he was friends with one of Henry's assault victims). He spends decades hovering around Clare, hoping Henry will fall out of the picture for good. When Henry's body is barely cold in the ground, Clare bangs Gomez on the kitchen table while Gomez's wife, their children, and Alba are just outside the door. He is given token characteristics beyond this (He's an anarchist! He's a punk! He's an alderman!) but they never affect the plot or any other character. For all his influence, he could be a vibrator Clare isn't supposed to use.
Also, though this is far from the biggest issue in the book, I groaned to my wife when Charisse, Clare's sketchily written anarchist/artist friend and Gomez's wife, claims she painted computer viruses into her paintings using HTML. It shows such a fundamental misunderstanding of computers that Niffenegger should almost be a writer for a crime procedural from the nineties. Worse, it shows that she didn't care to do even a little bit of research outside her comfort zone and that no one proofreading it had the guts or experience to call her on this ignorance. It is indicative of one of the bigger issues in the book because Niffenegger mistakes name-dropping for establishing character. At times, she will list a dozen records or books that a character enjoys as if to show what a cultured woman she herself is and what a literary book this must be through association. This is underscored by the weakness of the final section, which ends with her quoting the Odyssey (not a character in the book but the narration itself) instead of making her own ending.
This book was skating on three stars for most of the time I read it because, despite its problems, there are passages that are well written and unself-conscious. This is a diverting vacation read. When I got to the very weak ending (middle age Henry visits geriatric Clare once more, but Niffenegger doesn't describe this beyond the Odyssey quote), I dropped it down to two stars out of annoyance at having my time wasted. That really is what all my issues boiled down to: this book about time travel seems like a waste of time and effort, because Niffenegger is obviously talented, just distracted. The author presents questions, then ignores them so she can gloat over how much sex Henry has. Her technique of switching the first person perspective is occasionally cloying and self-conscious, sometimes switching for only a paragraph or two until she switches back.