“Long ago, men went to sea, and women waited for them, standing on the edge of the water, scanning the horizon for the tiny ship. Now I wait for Henry. He vanishes unwillingly, without warning. I wait for him. Each moment that I wait feels like a year, an eternity. Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting. Why has he gone where I cannot follow?”
“I hate to be where she is not, when she is not. And yet, I am always going...”
There's an inherently magical quality to debut novels, an urgency that permeates their earnest prose in ways not often felt in an author's later works. While the novels that follow may well prove superior in any number of ways, a writer's first work bears the full weight of their aspirations and as yet untapped potential. This isn't to say that every debut stands out as such—many a career has been born of an inauspicious beginning—but for some, so much of the burgeoning writer is poured into that initial foray into the literary world that it truly dazzles, unexpectedly, surprisingly, life-alteringly. Few have so forcefully seized the opportunity that the debut novel presents as Audrey Niffenegger did in 2003, with The Time Traveler's Wife.
Though the plot is driven by the life circumstances of "chrono-impaired" librarian Henry DeTamble, the novel's story largely follows the path of its titular character, Henry's eventual wife Clare. The novel begins with a brief introduction to the characters, as they describe in turn the experience of being subjected to Henry's traveling. We are shown how it is that Henry first meets Clare, and then how Clare first meets Henry—the former taking place in 1991, when Henry is 28 and Clare is 20; the latter taking place in 1977, when Henry is 36 and Clare is 6.
In alternating perspectives presented in an almost epistolary tone, one character often taking up the story's telling where the other leaves off, the novel details young Clare's encounters with Henries of varying ages, sowing the seeds of the relationship to come. Once Clare meets the Henry who shares her present—albeit inconsistently—the reader follows as their relationship manifests fully and unfolds under duress of the unique challenges presented by Henry's temporal excursions.
It's difficult to summarize The Time Traveler's Wife further, beyond the above description and all that it implies. So much of what makes the novel truly captivating is its depth, the richness of the lives depicted. Young Clare doesn't offer the temporally displaced Henry a donut—it's a bismarck, specifically. When the couple attends a Violent Femmes concert, they don't merely dance to "the music", we're treated to a sampling of the set list, with lyrical excerpts. Musical, artistic, and literary references abound, and all of these details add texture and nuance, shaping a multi-faceted world that is believable, plausible, real. Niffenegger's grasp of language is such that vocabularies grow as the characters' ages do, and in general creating tones that are at once truly human, and at times profoundly poetic. As Henry and Clare lament and celebrate and opine, each of these moods and moments is imbued with an import inescapable to the reader. Here, it seems as real people suffering, loving, struggling, striving, rejoicing, and with them so too does the reader.
As with any adaptation of a complex work, the cinematic iteration of the novel suffers somewhat from an excess of simplicity. The screenplay, penned by Ghost and My Life screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, capably captures the essence of the basic plot, but much of the novel's depth falls sadly to the wayside. Henry's complicated relationship with his father is reduced to a single, intense scene; Clare's childhood, the experiences with Henry of which form the foundation of the relationship to come, is treated only marginally, used most often to punctuate the progression of events in the "present"; most of the novel's cultural references are abandoned, taking it from its particular setting in time and making for a more timeless piece, though somehow to its detriment; characters integral to the story—particularly that of Clare's friend Gomez—are minimalized, if not abandoned entirely.
Yet for all this, the film does still satisfy on many levels, for more than those already fond of its literary basis. The depiction of Henry's traveling is impressively handled, and the story's pacing is consistent while ensuring that no major points are overlooked, nor minor points belabored. The cast is generally quite endearing, despite stumbling over some of the less conversational lines. The "feel" of the film—its fantastical plot, cinematography, framing, and score—lends a dreamlike quality, calling to mind other works, such as What Dreams May Come and Bicentennial Man. This contrasts with the novel's frequently visceral tone, much of which would have been far too graphic for the targeted PG-13 rating. However, this "softer side" of the overall plot avoids the trap of becoming too saccharine for fans of the original work. All in all, for anyone keen on subtly scifi/fantasy films and romantic dramas, the movie is a fairly safe bet.
At its heart, in either iteration, The Time Traveler's Wife is an exploration of ever so much more than the love between a man and a woman. Questions of free will and fate plague the couple, and the reader or viewer as well. The origins of said love are ontologically paradoxical, as are a number of events that transpire as Henry and Clare's relationship progresses. As the philosophical quandaries mount, in addition to the more typical issues that challenge any relationship, the story becomes one that is at the same time utterly unique and all too familiar. It's this blending of strange and common grounds that so compels the reader to continue exploring through the heartwarming and heartbreaking episodes in Henry and Clare's lives.
Ultimately, though star-crossed in their own way, the DeTambles' love for each other is deep, abiding, and most of all inspiring. To observe their struggles, their triumphs, their tragedies, is a journey all its own. Absent the benefit (and curse) of genuine time travel, one must settle for traveling back to the beginning of the story and embarking upon that journey anew—something many will find themselves compelled to do time and time again.