This 2003 bestseller (made into a 2009 Hollywood film that I obviously haven’t seen) is a fucking bizarre novel that feels almost as outdated in its social politics as that travel book by one of Hemingway’s ex-wives I just read. The Time Traveller’s Wife manages to be simultaneously the creepiest fucking thing I’ve read since Lolita and also a proper weepfest. It’s impossible, now, to read it optimistically and uncritically, because the narrative of The Time Traveller’s Wife isn’t romantic and sweet and lovely: it’s fucking terrifying. It’s about grooming and manipulation and an unreliable, frequently-absent man being treated reverentially by a naive, much younger, woman.
I’m going to be generous and presume you haven’t read The Time Traveller’s Wife, so here – briefly – is the plot. Henry is unstuck in time, and though he mostly lives a straightforward existence in late 20th century Chicago, sometimes he spontaneously disappears and reappears, naked, at future and past points in his own lifetime (and occasionally outside it), always at locations of personal significance. Got that?
Henry meets his younger and older self, as well as younger and older versions of his friends and family, and most people close to him know about his time-hopping and in return for secrecy he helps them play the stock market. Later in the novel, Henry finds a doctor who will try and “treat” his condition, and it is then implied that his problem is more widespread than just his own skewed genes (it is sci-fi not magic). Later still, Henry finds out the date and time of his own death (when speaking to loved ones after it has happened) and there is thus a sad countdown to the termination of his life. He must die when he must die: for all the flaws that I’m about to explore, Niffenegger satisfyingly nails time travel. Events that have happened have happened, there are no alternative timelines and there is no changing history. Good. This is good time travel.
Henry is, of course, the titular time traveller, and his eponymous wife is Clare. In linear time, Clare is eight years younger than Henry, which is creepy enough in itself. They start dating when she is 20 and he is 28, which made me feel a bit icky even before the timey-wimey sex stuff happened. I am 30 years old. If I started dating a 22-year-old it would be a sign that either a) all my hard-won personal growth has collapsed backwards and/or b) I was prioritising blunt sexuality over psychological connection. As I said to my lover yesterday, I can understand people fucking people whose age is dramatically lower from their own, but if you still enjoy hanging out with people almost a decade younger than you are, it means you haven’t changed in that decade and thus probably you’re never going to change and are thus an underwhelming, stuck, bored, tired, human. Life = personal growth, in my opinion. The other option is that scumbags like Henry want to date someone younger so they can use their wider life experience to keep the other “under control”. Either way, it’s a bad look.
Anyway, Clare is an artist (living off a trust fund) who’s been groomed for marriage since the age of six by a thirty-something creep who repeatedly visits her. In a somewhat breathtaking leap of pre-millennial thinking, the reader is expected to see Henry’s lust-tinged interactions with a child as romantic, rather than creepy. Henry speaks about getting erections and feeling horny around Clare when she is legally and morally a child, and his refusal to bang her until the day of her eighteenth birthday (when he’s in his 41-year-old body!) is treated as if the paragon of virtue, rather than as the bare legal minimum and far below the ethical one. Of course, 41 year old men shouldn’t be fucking 17 year olds, but if the only thing stopping them is the law, then that’s a problem. A 41 year old man shouldn’t be fucking anyone on their 18th birthday, especially no one who they’ve known since they were six. It’s fucking creepy. And I couldn’t ignore the doubly creepy factors of this novel’s central relationship.
Henry is no sexual naif: he’s a sleazy ladies man and petty criminal who alludes to drug use (in a narratively unconvincing way). Henry is a bit of a bad boy, but he’s a bit of a bad boy who works in a fucking library. Clare, meanwhile, doesn’t get to spend any of her life unaware of Henry, and the end of the novel implies she wastes her life after his death waiting for his occasional time-travelling visits. Remarkably, Niffenegger writes many of these closing passages quite beautifully, and the knowing Henry saying goodbye to his friends and his daughter is moving, though his wife’s inability to escape him, even after death, is nasty.
Clare fucks one other man in the brief window between losing her virginity to a 41-year-old man and meeting the 28-year-old Henry (who is in a relationship with someone else at the time, despite their immediate hook-up), and Henry talks of this as a great betrayal. Clare – and the novel itself – doesn’t see Henry’s controlling and jealous behaviour as negatively as it should, or would now. This book is less than 20 years old, but it presents a terrible, ethically repulsive, relationship as if it should be read as “true love” etc etc etc. There’s no such thing as a “soulmate”: love is real, but if a charming older man tells you from pre-adolescence that you’re gonna be his bride then far from being “The One”, he is the worst person in the world for you to be dating.
Maybe the marketing of the novel is different from Niffenegger’s literary intentions: maybe the author wanted the book to be read as a text about a tragic woman in a terrible relationship, but the publishers decided to market it as romance instead? Alas, no: even though words such as “fucking” are in the text, whenever Henry or Clare (the novel bounces between their first person perspectives) talk about sex with each other, they refer to it as “making love”, in direct contrast to all of Henry’s other sexual experiences being “fucking”. Their voices – this aside – are too similar, and it is the lack of nuance in the writing that implies a lack of nuance in the book’s ethics. Also, Clare is SO RICH that her parents have multiple full time servants in the fucking 1990s: that is SUPER RICH and this is never explored as something of interest.
The Time Traveller’s Wife is a creepy novel, pleasingly emotive in places but overall it is forgiving of mediocre men, it is old-fashioned, it is OUT OF DATE. Fun, but too long and too creepy. A book to read half-cut on a beach. In 2003. Meh.
PS: The novel contains a couple of direct references to a man travelling back in time to have sex with himself, as I do in my infamous “song” ‘In The Land of the Dinosaurs’. Cool!
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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