Few books have impacted me quite the way Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife has. I have read it at least four times now and it continues to enlighten me on love, life, and the preciousness of time. As the title suggests, the novel follows a time traveler and his wife as they recur in each others’ lives, not always in chronological order. Henry, the son of a violinist and singer, discovers he can travel through time at the age of five. He experiences many wonders (such as museums after hours) and many tragedies (the death of his mother). He meets his future wife for the first time in his late twenties, when she has known him since age six. Clare, the artist daughter of a wealthy couple from Michigan, is destined to love and be loved by a man who is not always present. And so she is also destined to wait.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is a love story. But it is also filled with philosophy, humor, and adventure. While Henry equips himself with the tools for surviving his chromosomal disease, he encounters life from all angles. He can travel to listen to his mother perform, when in real-time he wasn’t even born. He wanders the halls of his old school and even his current workplace in times other than his own. Henry’s condition is frightening and exciting. And while he is on his adventures, Clare is stationary…moving only forward, waiting for his return. One of my favorite metaphors is that the children are the ones who fly off to Never land, while the parents are left with empty beds. Clare lives on the fringe of a fairytale, in love with the illusion that is Henry.
Even though Clare has grown up with Henry in her life, married life isn’t without its complications. Clare often finds herself resorting to her love of art when Henry is remedying his condition with drugs, meeting with his geneticist, or while he is simply away. Although she comes from a privileged childhood, Clare has the eye for darkly beautiful things and creates massive sculptures of birds in her studio space. She considers her life and solidifies her emotions in vats of paper and red dyes. She is tortured by the prospect of loving a man who leaves her and yearns for something to love for always…a baby.
The question that ultimately characterizes The Time Traveler’s Wife is this: “is it better to be extremely happy for a short while…than to be just okay for your whole life?” And I ask you the same thing. Which is better? While this novel dives into science fiction, its themes most definitely apply to real-life. As untimely as death arrives in most lives, is there any solace in considering the quality of life lived, rather than the years? This masterpiece by Niffenegger will rip your heart out, only to meekly return it to you at the novel’s end. If you have not yet read The Time Traveler’s Wife, I might ask…what are you waiting for?
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