“The Time Traveler’s Wife” is one of those books so many people told, nay, demanded I read. All said it was fabulous, and I believed them. The premise sounded interesting, especially since I am an unapologetic fan of Doctor Who. A time traveling man in love with a woman who has to live life linearly with, and without him? I am hooked! Or I wanted to be. Which is why this review is hard. I did not love this book, in fact, I barely liked it. So buckle in, this is going to be a long review.
Let me start off with what I liked, because frankly, that won’t take much time. I liked how Niffenegger made Henry’s time travel ability akin to a disease. So often we think how cool it’d be to time travel, to go to a place we want to in time and hang out for however long we want, then bounce when we’re done. Henry’s limitations with when and where he goes, and not being able to control it, as well as losing anything on his body (clothes, teeth fillings, you name it), was fascinating. I really enjoyed flipping that idea on its head. I also enjoyed Niffenegger’s prose. She is an exceedingly talented writer and I loved her prose and the imagery it invoked, sometimes despite the situation the characters found themselves in. I don’t feel as if many modern day writers are allowed to write in this manner because of the current publishing industry, so I enjoy this level of prose in popular novels when I encounter it.
But that’s it. That was all I enjoyed. Just because you write beautifully, does not mean you write well. If you want a time travel book that does this concept 1000x better (love story and all), go read Kindred by Octavia Butler and thank me later. The “love” story was not an impassioned affair at all. It was basically like reading a teenage love affair where hormones reign supreme long past their welcome, but written in such a clinical manner for all things sex related (and there’s a lot of sex. Like, a lot, implied and otherwise) that it didn’t feel like the passionate love story it aimed to be. Plus, Henry and Clare sound the same when I’m reading, they use the same mannerisms and phrasing, making them feel like shallow reflections of one another rather than their own unique person. You take the time travel out, and really, they might as well be the same person.
Clare does not exist without Henry. I cannot tell you how infuriating I found this. Clare has no purpose other than to be Henry’s wife. Her whole life revolves around him and waiting for him from age 6 and on. Age 6! And don’t get me started on the uncomfortable sexual tension Henry feels for teenage Clare when he’s in his late thirties to early forties. I don’t care if you know this woman will be your wife, right now she’s a child. Act your age, not like the horny eighteen-year old you never age out of, Henry. To me, this is not love, this is grooming a young woman to be dependent on this man for everything for the rest of her life. Also, Henry is, apparently, a womanizing dog with drug and alcohol problems that Clare doesn’t care about at all because, well, love and marriage and soul mates and blah, blah, blah. I’m sorry, but that needed to be addressed in a meaningful way beyond “I have met my wife, I am all better now. Please ignore all my flaws.” I don’t know, I found Clare’s lack of substance and Henry grooming his future wife from childhood to be unsettling not romantic, time travel be damned.
Also ever single POC in this novel is boiled down to a stereotype. Clare’s rich family (who dresses for dinner as if they lived in a Jane Austen novel) employs servants who happen to be women of color. One of whom speaks in “Gone with the Wind” levels of colloquialism. Not to mention that Henry’s landlord, Kimy, speaks in a broken English that feels ripped from railroad-era cartoons portraying Asian Americans. This book was written in the early 2000’s, there is 0 excuse for ANY this. It wasn’t even done to be a social commentary, it was just done with what felt like no thought and therefore was just bad on the author and editor’s part for leaving that in the book. I understand that sometimes characters do speak in this manner, but when your only POC’s are all caricatures, that’s a big no-no for me.
Lastly, there were so many instances strewn throughout the entirety of the book that just felt like the author was trying way too hard to prove that she knew what she was talking about. Long paragraphs with lists of punk-rock bands to show that Henry is the real deal. Name dropping several classically trained musicians to show Henry and Clare are cultured, so very cultured. Listing out every single detail to making paper art (multiple times) so you know that she knows her stuff when Clare is working in her art studio. Niffenegger even did this when listing out their groceries so we’d know she knew what she was talking about when she tells us Henry knows how to cook. It made the book slow and bogged down the lovely prose the author was otherwise employing. And for what? Doing research is important for fiction novels, absolutely, but give it a purpose. Show me how this information relates to your characters. Don’t tell me vis-à-vis a laundry list of names. Otherwise it just sounds like I’m having someone’s Google search dictated to me, and that’s not a fun read.
So how to rate this book? A book with lovely literary writing, but with flat characters that lacked the emotional depth to make me feel like they weren’t both selfish and flat people? A book with a fascinating concept, but plagued with terrible POC representation and eye-roll levels of lists trying to prove the author did her research? I wanted to give this book at least 3 stars, but I can’t. Giving it 3 stars is just my guilt that I didn’t like it more. So I’m giving it 2 stars, sorry not sorry.