The Time Traveler’s Wife
This is an easy decision, and not only because I read about five pieces of fiction this year and most of them were pulp. Well, OK, that is a factor. But this book is good enough for me to blog about it and you know I only blog about important things that you need to know about.

The book is The Time Traveler’s Wife and it is by Audrey Niffenegger. Have you heard of it?

Apparently they are making this into a movie, which I suppose is a good thing. But it is the detail and complexity that makes this an exceptional story, and this will not come through in the movie. So the movie will just be the romance, without all the angst, the wonder, without all the fear, and the flashy appearances and disappearances of some naked hottie male actor without all the … whaver.

OK, back to the novel. Henry DeTamble is born in 1963, and meets his eventual wife (the time traveler’s wife), Clare Abshire, when he is 28 years old, in 1991. She is a few years younger. They get married and are very much in love until one of them eventually dies.

Sound kind of boring, I know, but wait, there’s more.

He is of a modest background with two artist parents, and she is of a very wealthy background with a father who is a lawyer or something and a totally neurotic mother. Her family lives in Michigan, in a nice big house in a rural area.

I know, Iknow, still doesn’t sound very interesting. The interesting part is this:

Henry has an unusual disorder that causes him to occasionally travel in time. It is hard for him to predict when it will happen … he cannot stop it or conjure it, though he learns that certain things make it less or more likely to happen. He feels a bit sick, dizzy, hen suddenly he is somewhere else …. and, somwhen else. With nothing. No clothing, no possessions, only his wits.

Fortunately for Henry, many of these sorties into the twilight zone bring him to a quiet meadow in the woods just out of sight of the palatial Michigan home of this cute, smart, and very cool little girl named Clare. This is a meadow in which Clare likes to play alone. The first time the strange 30 or 40 something year old naked man appears out of nowhere in the meadow, she is young enough to not be totally put off. This allows a bit of a relationship to develop. Eventually, they fall in love (well, she falls in love with him, he is already married to her).

Because he travels around in time enough, and is a smart guy, he has figured out most (but not all) of the times he will arrive in the meadow. So Clare has a list of dates and times, and makes sure there is a stash of clothing, food, and drink for her mysterious crush-to-become-lover. The clothing is especially important in the dead of winter.

That’s all very interesting, but it gets much more interesting than this. The story is further complicated by the fact that many, perhaps most, of Henry’s forays in time are more unexpected and not prepared for in any way. Henry becomes well known to the Chicago police (he lives in, and often time travels to, Chicago) as a strange guy who likes to walk around in alleys with no clothing on. His co-workers in a Chicago atheneum known as The Newberry Library think of him as a strange guy who occasionally disappears (like for a long lunch or something?) but often leaves a pile of clothing behind. Henry learns to steal clothing form clothes lines, pick pockets, defend himself from attackers, break into any sort of locked building. He gets pretty good at this, and actually ends up teaching his young self (whom he occasionally visits) how to do these things.

So, you can see, the story can get quite complicated.

You know, not too far into the book if you are paying attention, that this is not going to end well. You wonder, what happens if these two have a child? You worry about the interactions among friends, coworkers, and especially relatives. There is a moment when you see what looks like something very bad happening to Henry in the future, but you can’t be sure what it is. But you never have a sense that Clare and Henry are not going to stay married. That never seems in doubt. ‘Till death do they part. Like the song goes: “To all things there is a season, time time time …” But since Henry is a time traveler, you can imagine that nothing is so certain or simple as even death.

The story explores all the usual questions about time travel, but only briefly. There seems to be a sense of fate … you can’t change the present by messing with the past … yet you can change what people know about the present (or future) a little. So the DeTamble family gets to skim a little off the stock market, but they don’t alter world history. There is no butterfly effect in this book, only a vague sense that there is not much you can do to change the future, but you can make minor adjustments that will not have a large effect no matter what you do.

The suspension of disbelief is easy given the very high quality of the writing. I thought the ending was overcomplicated in the story telling considering how utterly simple the actual events are (compared to the rest of the book) but I sensed the writer wanted to tie up some threads.

To the person who gave me this book as a gift: Thanks. I love you too.


  1. #1 Ana
    December 16, 2008


  2. #2 Anon
    December 16, 2008
  3. #3 Greg Laden
    December 16, 2008

    I take it you did not like the book? Or is it my review that you find Bleh-ish?

  4. #4 Larry Moran
    December 16, 2008

    The movie has been finished and it’s due for release in a few months (The Time Traveler’s Wife).

    One of my friends, Fiona Reid, has a decent part in the movie and she thinks it will be great.

  5. #5 Xavier
    December 16, 2008

    I think not Bleh. I liked the book. The movie, we’ll see.

  6. #6 moneduloides
    December 16, 2008

    Perhaps “bleh” was in response to:

    “I only blog about important things that you need to know about.”

    Mr. Pretension 😉

  7. #7 Stephanie Z
    December 16, 2008

    Greg, JanieBelle and I thank you for the qualification. 🙂

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    December 16, 2008

    M: Well, but you see, Ana, even though she may or may not actually exist, knows me too well to have even read that part of my blog post.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    December 16, 2008

    It is scary knowing that people who never miss anything are watching.

  10. #10 Stephanie Z
    December 16, 2008

    Why’s it there if not to be read and appreciated?

  11. #11 Ana
    December 16, 2008

    Greg knows me well enough to know that I read all of his blog post and that I never find his writing bleh. I did not like the Niffenegger. Gimmick-driven drivel bleh. And if I remember correctly, even the gimmick breaks down at some point in inconsistency and dubiousness; but it was years ago I read it. I remember being turned off by her english language usage too, but you see here how I write, so go ahead and roll your eyes at me about it and take what you can from the book. I don’t mean to discourage reading, just think you could do better elsewhere – like with ‘Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’ which, if I existed, I would loan you (but I would have to buy another copy cuz I’ve already lent out two with no return).

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    December 16, 2008

    Hm. Blake. You wrote a novel! Sorry, your comment got trapped because it had a link.

    Everybody go read Blake’s novel!

  13. #13 Serena
    December 17, 2008

    Who is Blake?

  14. #14 Azkyroth
    December 17, 2008

    The story explores all the usual questions about time travel, but only briefly. There seems to be a sense of fate … you can’t change the present by messing with the past … yet you can change what people know about the present (or future) a little.

    Just out of curiosity, is there any actual evidence that this is how things would work, if time travel was even possible? A lot of the depictions I’ve seen appear to implicitly assume that The Course of Events has some kind of problem-solving ability, which seems absurdly anthropocentric.

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    December 17, 2008

    Blake Stacey as in Science after Sunclipse, a Scienceblogs.com production.

    Azkyroth: I’m not sure how to answer a question about how something works if it actually worked that way when it really doesn’t.

    In this book the relationship between time travel and changing the future is personalized. The husband could tell the wife a number of things he knows, but does not, but not to avoid changing the future, but rather, to control the kind of angst she is forced to experience. But he does tell her some things or she figures it out. I mean, if your husband goes into the future you might be able to tell something about where he’s been when he comes back, just on what he does NOT say….

    What I find interesting and perplexing is that while he travels through time alone … with no possibility of bringing along material possessions … what about his stomach contents and stuff? I mean, shouldn’t there be a semi-ordered set of piles of stuff from between his teeth, chunks of food in a acidic bath, bile, watches of chime and piles of feces, perhaps sprinkled with bladder contents?

    It turns out that sometimes the suspension of disbelief is a great convenience.

  16. #16 Elizabeth
    December 17, 2008

    I loved the book, but I found it necessary to focus and backtrack a bit to keep track until I became accustom to it.

  17. #17 P B
    December 17, 2008

    I believe the movie is coming out in January. January of last year, possibly.

  18. #18 Bachalon
    December 17, 2008

    Eh, it was alright. I guess. I don’t recall anything about which doesn’t speak well for it I suppose.

  19. #19 JJB
    December 17, 2008

    I read the book. The end totally creeped me out (the last fifth or so) but I loved it anyway. Ana, if you existed you would have enjoyed it more, perhaps. It must be difficult to read and not exist at the same time. The words would go right past your eyes.

  20. #20 Digital Rabbit
    December 17, 2008

    Great book! I read it a few years ago.

  21. #21 marilove
    December 17, 2008

    I read this several years ago! I am not generally into romances. Not even a little. But this was such a wonderful book. I couldn’t put it down. HIGHLY recommended!

  22. #22 cringe
    December 17, 2008

    “I remember being turned off by her english language usage too,”

    Turned off by her English language usage, when you seem to have a problem with that yourself… Yeesh.

  23. #23 Monica
    December 17, 2008

    I liked this book too. I read it years ago and there were parts that were disjointed, but time traveling must be somewhat disjointed too, yes?

    A fantastic series in the time travel/romance/somewhat science-themed (slightly a stretch)/Historical fiction/Scottish history-Jacobites/Standing Stones/Revolutionary America/burning at the stake/ and MORE is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Series. There are seven whopping 1000-page books in the series and they are FUNNY too. Gabaldon has an M.S. in Marine Biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a Ph.D. in quantitative behavioral ecology. Her books are full of detail about plants, animals, and 18th century medicine. Very excellent. Her website is here: http://www.its.caltech.edu/~gatti/gabaldon/gabaldon.html

  24. #24 marilove
    December 17, 2008

    Oh My, I love Gabaldon! As I said, I’m not generally into romance, but man, Gabaldon really is a great writer and it’s so much more than just romance. Plus her female characters always kick ass.

  25. #25 Greg Laden
    December 17, 2008

    Turned off by her English language usage, when you seem to have a problem with that yourself… Yeesh.

    I rise to defend the honor of my beloved friend, Ana!

    (Not that she, if she existed, would need me to do this.)

    Even if Ana were a sucky writer, one can still end up not liking a particular use of the language. There is not a particular scale of quality, but rather, a multi dimensional complex set of different kinds of writing. My wife, mother in law, and some other peoople are all reading these books by a particular author and loving them, so I tried one out and could not get past page three … didn’t like the use of langauge at all. Meanwhile all these highly educated people including those with advanced degrees in English Literature and stuff are loving it.

    As for Ana’s writing: I am in the very small group of people who have seen Ana’s writing in every form writing can exist, on a wide range of topics, over several years. I’ve seen her formal letters, her college essays, her activist prosology, her dashed out hand written notes taped to cookies, all form of email and I can tell you that I have both stared at what she has written having no clue what she means at some times, and been enthralled at her clarity and inspiration at other times.

    It is almost as though the actually existed…

  26. #26 dave m
    December 17, 2008

    I vote for yes, one of the best books over a given year. Not necessarily this year. You really must keep more up to date with your readings, Dr. Laden.

  27. #27 Kate
    December 17, 2008

    I read this book a while back (maybe last year or so) and put in on my top 10 list.

    And I read a LOT of fiction, not just pulp.

    This year The Mistress of Spices has made it to my top 10 list as well, and The Wood Wife

  28. #28 Tim
    December 17, 2008

    Niffenegger is a strange writer. Her other books are .. different, but worth a look.

  29. #29 j.b.
    December 17, 2008

    cringe … I second Laden. One doe not have to be a great writer to know when you are not reading what you like. (Or vise versa). As to the famous non-existing Ana’s writing, I can’t say. I hear she uses invisible ink.

  30. #30 cephyn
    December 17, 2008

    Good book, but definitely borderline creepy.

  31. #31 j.b.
    December 17, 2008

    oh… by “cringe” I meant the commenter known as “cringe” (see above) … I was not cringing.

  32. #32 sue
    December 17, 2008

    I’ve put it on my Christmas wish list on my Amazon account!

  33. #33 Anni
    December 17, 2008

    The Mistress of Spices

    Good one.

  34. #34 Monica
    December 17, 2008

    Greg, what about a list of your top 20 books (fiction) and/or non-fiction? Lists about other people’s favorite books and music or movies are my favorite.


  35. #35 xavier
    December 17, 2008

    It is almost as though the actually existed…

    It is almost as though she was actually a blogger!

  36. #36 Horace
    December 17, 2008

    A blogger? A sock puppet, more likely!

  37. #37 marilove
    December 17, 2008

    Yes, I second Monica… What else do you enjoy? Something tells me we have similar tastes in fiction.

  38. #38 xavier
    December 17, 2008

    I believe there is a meme out there which serves this purpose.

  39. #39 Ana
    December 17, 2008

    cringe: your purity is no match for my wit

    Greg Laden: thx and all, u r sweet – but whaddaya mean u don’t understand? 😉

    all the rest of y’all: you cannot make me do it – i will not pick up the Niffenegger again – uh-uh – i am comfortable being in the minority – have no need to reevaluate – reconsider – maybe grow…humph.

    Kate and Anni: i will have to pick up The Mistress of Spices – my neighbor asked earlier today for clove oil…

  40. #40 Greg Laden
    December 17, 2008

    Does your neighbor have a toothache?

  41. #41 Ana
    December 17, 2008

    Is that what that was about? Not that I know of. I do know that he does have a sick beta fish, and a girlfriend who bakes?

  42. #42 greg laden
    December 18, 2008

    What does she bake???????

  43. #43 JanieBelle
    December 18, 2008

    Yes, thank you Greg, for qualifying your remarks with the word “published”.