Author: Audrey Niffenegger
Winner: Exclusive Books Boeke Prize, 2005; British Book Award, Popular Fiction, 2006
New York Times Bestseller
Original Publication: 2003
Genre: Fiction (Science Fiction, Romance)
Henry DeTamble is a man with a genetic disorder (later identified in the novel as Chrono-Displacement), which causes him to uncontrollably travel through time. He travels only relative to his own life’s timeline, and so has many interactions with his older and younger selves as he travels. This enables him to teach his younger self survival skills, such as picking locks and pickpocketing. He seems to travel mainly to points which cause him to interact with people who are important to him in his life. During one journey, he meets a little girl named Claire Abshire and knows that later on in life, Claire becomes his wife (he is quite a bit older than she is.) Since her life progresses chronologically, she sees him at all different ages as he travels back in time to visit her. He tells her all of the dates in her childhood that he will come to visit her, and she writes them down in a notebook so that she will remember to provide him with food and clothing. His time travel causes him to appear naked and without resources wherever he “lands”, so he must rely on her kindness and his own instincts in order to not draw attention to himself.
Since all of the leaps back in time to Claire occur when he is older (and after he knows she is his wife), it makes for an interesting interlude when he meets Claire for the first time in his twenties. Chronologically, he’s meeting her for the first time in his own life, and they are not married yet, but she has known him essentially her entire life and recognizes him instantly. She is, of course, struck by how young he looks. Of course, they get married, and Henry continues to leap back through time, delighting in visiting Claire as a little girl and then coming back to his own time, where he can discuss it and she remembers it from her childhood. The time traveling, however, is obviously hard on Claire as she never knows where Henry is, and worries about him incessantly. The two also have trouble having children and Claire has six miscarriages – presumably because Henry is passing the genetic disorder to their unborn children. In one leap forward, Henry meets his ten-year old daughter, who has indeed inherited the disease (albeit has more control over it than Henry does,) and he learns that he dies when she is five.
One thing I can say about the story is that Henry’s interaction as an adult with Claire as a little girl is very much part of the love story, rather than being creepy. It could easily have veered into a grotesque, Humbert Humbert-ish parody of a May-December relationship, but it doesn’t. The last scene in the novel is quite touching. That said, however, the time traveling aspect of the novel was hard for me to get a handle on at first. It’s more than a little confusing the first few times, even if you do understand it pretty well by the end. It was easy for me to put down, even if I enjoyed the story for the most part.
Fun Fact: The novel was turned into a 2009 film starring Rachel McAdams as Claire and Eric Bana as Henry. I have not seen it (despite the wonderful cast), but it received only a 35% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
Bother If: You’re a fan of ham-fisted romance novels. It’s a relatively trite, cliche love story in the vein of Nicholas Sparks. That said, it was not unenjoyable, and I can see why a lot of people loved the book. I wasn’t one of them. While I did not hate it, it was a story that certainly could have been better told. On the other hand, sometimes one is in the mood for a dramatic love story, and this novel has its place.
Don’t Bother If: Even though it qualifies mostly as Chick-lit, my critiques of the story are mainly with the writing. It tries to be written in a classic style; so much so that its occasional use of a glaringly “modern” word jolts you out of the story for a second because it is so out of place. The emotional aspects are of the hand-wringing variety. The plot devices are melodramatic and implausible – for example, it is implied further that the reason Claire keeps miscarrying is not only because the children are inheriting chrono-displacement, but because the FETUSES are time traveling, effectively beaming themselves out of Claire’s womb and obviously not surviving the trip. Blechhh, spare me.