You’ll need to put some things aside when reading this book.
Put aside the movie. I’ve not seen it but I’ve received multiple confirmations that it sucked.
Put aside the cover (and it’s implications). A young girl in knee high socks and Mary Janes standing next to a pile of men’s clothes. The implication being: there’s a naked dude running around this little girl. Oh, in the novel there is.
Put aside trying to figure out the intricacies of time travel. Don’t discuss it like Star Trek fans trying to figure out and argue with J.J. Abrams resetting of the Star Trek universe. Just enjoy the story.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is a romance novel of the ‘everyone-has-a-soul-mate’ variety. Yet the writing his heightened (another word for so, so much better) than your average romance or genre fiction (and most literary fiction) with a time travel twist.
“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?”
- from The Time Traveler’s Wife
It is not a plot driven tale. The question of “Will they get together in the end” is replaced with “Can they get together?” which is a nice and unique trick. In the can they get together romances, lovers are separated by space. Here, it’s time.
It’s Kurt Vonnegut but with an extra four hundred pages and all the sophomoric political crap removed (not my observation) and replaced by the human element.
There’s plenty of meditations on time and absence. Flashbacks are actual flashbacks allowing characters to offer commentary on the past in their present voice without the gauze of memory.
The writing is executed almost flawlessly. I’m a short book guy. I almost always think the middle third of any novel can be excised whole. But the high quality of writing in this novel and the development of character kept my attention. It’s often said comedy is hard to write. It is. But romance that is romantic and heartfelt but not so syrupy that it gives its readers diabetes is so much harder to write. It’s also much closer to what humans want and need. It provides insight into situations that are so common to us all. No one reflects back after a lifetime of reading and says, “Hey that post-apocalyptic dystopian zombie novel really helped me understand humanity more.” But then again, maybe I’ve just not read the right post-apocalyptic dystopian zombie novel
I had two large qualms about the novel. The characters, while intensely developed, were what I thought of as stock characters. Our time traveler is the son of a talented opera singer who died tragically. His father is a tortured violinist. Our literal ‘lady-in-waiting’ is the wealthy trust fund daughter of a poet mom doing a bad Sylvia Plath impersonation and a lawyer dad who pays for it all. Their best friends are a lawyer representing abused children and a put upon stay-at-home mom. (The real miracle isn’t time travel but how those two have a home in a fashionable part of Chicago and send their kids to private school on that income.) They’re urbane, urban, quote long dead authors and poets. They’re sophisticated and progressive. No one really works for a living. Not really. I just think it’d be much more accessible if there were some blue collars around and not a bunch of poseurs fighting for the common man yet not really having to interact with him beyond allowing them to drive their cab.
There’s even a bit where they play a version of monopoly by their own socialist rules and end it with a card that says “Great Leap Forward” and they all laugh. Who jokes about the Great Leap Forward? Who jokes about the communist (whose patois these folks imitate throughout the novel) killing millions of people? That leads me to my next qualm.
I found very few of the characters likeable. It’s hard enough to like someone joking about the Great Leap Forward (or the Holocaust or the Killing Fields) They continually exhibit of selfishness or allow themselves to be victimized…just like all humans. However, the selfishness and victimization is really amped up here. I believe this element held back many in my book club from enjoying the book. However, I don’t believe in holding the all-to-human actions of the characters against the novel.
It’s a wonderfully well-written romance that doesn’t use time travel as a gimmick but as an obstacle to love and a tool to comment on that love but I don’t think you’d want these folks in your real life too much. In your reading life? They’re AOK.