The Time Traveler’s Wife: A Romantic Twist on a Time-Tested Plot Device

Posted by John Martone on May 30, 2009 in Pulp Fiction |

The Time Traveler's Wife

Editor’s Note: The film adaptation of this 2003 novel will be out this Summer directed by Robert Schwentke.

What makes for good literature? Now, this is only an opinion, but the best stories… the ones that really make you squirm with delight, are never about the guns, the gadgets, or the girls, its about how these objects move our characters. Was the “Final Frontier” about uncharted space, or was it really about how exploring the last unknown effected our heroes? In The Time Traveler’s Wife we see how an all too overused plot device, time travel, is used to stretch a conventional romance to the brink and back.

The Time Traveler’s Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
Amazon.com $9.72

The Premise: Meet Henry DeTamble, for reasons left vague, has the ability to travel slightly backwards and forwards in time. Though this is more often a curse, since it is beyond his control, and will randomly shunt him somewhere, cold and alone, for an indefinite amount of time. This change of setting has often saved him, since his stress will pull him to somewhere he feels safe (though it is often not the case.) For example, after meeting the love of his life, Claire Abshire, he starts unconsciously traveling back to her past. Of course, she is a six year old at the time…

Let me pin down the concept for you. The Time Traveler’s Wife is a romance centered around a scientific trope. In which two people whose lives are so entirely different are completely entwined. Claire spends her formative years growing up with an adult Henry, who at times is her babysitter, her mentor, and something more important. With the respect and knowledge for the woman she would one day become, Henry watches over the childhood version of his wife. In some respects he watches her grow into the woman he’ll marry, and in other ways he helps create her, that is a matter of perspective.

Max Ernst. The Fall of an Angel / La Chute d'un ange. Collage and oil on paper. 44 x 34 cm

Likewise, Henry would not, could not travel to what he does not know, so at the point she grows up and “meets him” for the first time, their positions have been reversed. The man she has grown up knowing she was going to marry, knows absolutely nothing about her. The man she has spent twenty years loving, does not yet exist.

Even beyond the premise, both Henry and Clare are characters you want to care about. From an alternating first person perspective, you get a feeling for two real people whom are attempting to be human, to be normal. What I find intoxicating is that no matter how exciting, no matter all the possibilities, our protagonists want nothing more than the “pedestrian” life that we so often take for granted.

Giorgio de Chirico. Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. 1914. Oil on canvas. 88 x 72 cm.

The Composition: The book is amazingly well edited. The best analogy I have for you is that the entire work is a circle graph. The center of the circle is the comfortable core, the washed safety of the beginning and end of a chapter. Each chapter begins by telling you the date, who is narrating, and how old they are at that time (surprisingly important). This sets up a concrete occurrence amidst a sea of chaotic narratives. When the chapter ends, you have filled in a small percentage of this circle, and return to your comfortable center, to begin the process anew.

It takes a bit of getting used to these constant “swings” in time, but eventually feels like second nature. Very quickly you’ll begin to speculate about when and where the characters really are in the greater narrative. For, you see, in story that is unhinged from time, so is its delivery. Though logically assembled, the chapters do not proceed in a chronological pattern.

The Summary: If any part of this discription has stimulated your interest, I can assure you that The Time Traveler’s Wife does not disappoint. While not a book for every person, the deft use of a surprisingly commonplace device created the opportunity to meet some of the most engaging, real characters I’ve ever read.

John Martone is Texas based writer bent on creating odd plays. When not doing that he disassembles plot lines for the enjoyment of the internet.

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