I’ve got to this one a bit late, considering Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveller’s Wife was published in 2004 (Jonathan Cape), and I became conscious of the media furore surrounding it about three years ago. For this I apologise; but reading it for the first time this week I was so thoroughly annoyed I could not resist writing about it.
Of course, by now I ought to know better than to judge a novel by its reviews – but since even my English department seemed to like it, and everyone was full of its originality, I unsuspectingly bought it for my aunt. I have since discovered the story to be anything but original. From the casual racism reflected in the stereotyped accents of the cook Nell and the landlady Kimy to the implied mocking dislike of left-wing idealism in a group of nice white Chicago intellectuals, the tone of the novel is highly conservative.
But what annoyed me most was the ‘old-fashioned love story’ which, so far from being at the heart of the novel, pretty much was the novel. In fact, it just about is the female protagonist’s life. In a disturbing time cycle which reinforces and consolidates all stereotypical gender roles, she first meets her time-travelling future husband at the age of six – when he is in his forties – and saves herself for him until she finally meets him in real time at the age of twenty, when she promptly marries him and settles down to play house – a house which she, an artist working from home, hardly ever leaves, and where she is constantly stuck waiting for her wayward time-travelling husband to return from his unannounced trips into otherwhen. His elusive movements even ensure that, not only is he the only man in her life between the ages of six and 35, when he dies; but his time-travelling into her future ensures that even after his death he will not leave her alone, and she is stuck living another forty-odd years just waiting for him to turn up. Contrarily, since Henry is twenty-eight when he first meets Clare in real time, and in his forties when he travels to her childhood, she spends her life waiting for him, but he can’t be bothered to tell his younger self that she exists. Thus, while she is saving herself for her Humbert Humbert, he is off screwing countless other women into heartache and even suicide. She knows this; and yet when, at age eighteen with two years to go before the appearance of real time Henry, she sleeps with her best friend’s boyfriend, her guilt and concern is not for her best friend: her first and only thought is ‘Henry will kill me’.
Meanwhile, this man whom the adoring voice of Clare and the self-pitying voice of Henry himself requires the reader, throughout the book, to revere, is one of the most selfish people imaginable. His time-travelling condition is represented as an illness for which he is not to blame: like epileptic fits, it is brought on by stress and irritants. But it does mean that Clare’s life, as well as his, centres entirely on it. Almost every event important to Clare is interrupted, delayed or disrupted by Henry’s inability to control his stress and his time-travelling, from the opening of her art exhibition to their wedding, and finally the New Year’s party during which he dies. The usually sex-obsessed Henry does a stint of time-travel which almost causes him to leave Clare at the altar, and which has him in a dead sleep throughout his wedding night. During the success of Clare’s exhibition, while he is occupying himself with their toddler daughter at the back of the crowd, he disappears, leaving Clare the professional to be summoned instantly to the demands of wifehood and motherhood as she looks after her screaming daughter and worries about her vanished husband.
But even when he isn’t time travelling, Henry is selfishly absorbing Clare’s life. Shortly after their marriage, in their first shared apartment, Clare has a studio of which she writes, ‘The space that I can call mine, that isn’t full of Henry, is so small that my ideas have become small.’ The perfect little wife has devoted all her space and time and life to her husband despite his regular departures, and reduced her own ambitions and concerns to such a scale that they can’t get in the way of her marriage. Never mind that he cheats on the lottery to buy her a larger studio: such a phrase is worrying. Throughout the story, every event that causes sadness to Clare is marginalised, or a reason for Henry to become miffed and, usually, storm off into a different era. When Clare is mourning the death of her mother, Henry is annoyed with the cancer victim for stealing his wife and causing her to be uninterested in sex. When Clare suffers one miscarriage after another because of Henry’s bad genes and is inconsolable because she cannot have a baby, he drives off and purposely leaves her to worry, reappearing in the midst of a gathering of police officers dredging the lake for his corpse. The only time when he comes home to find Clare is not there, and is himself worried for once, this is because she is pregnant and he is anxious not to miss the birth of his child.
The Time Traveller’s Wife is suffused with an overly obvious message which the science fiction attempts to disguise and render insidious. From the very first pages and their preoccupation with Henry’s proclivity to go ‘where Clare cannot follow’, the novel tries to normalise the fact that the woman devotes her life entirely to waiting passively for her husband to reappear, whereas the man moves freely without responsibility or blame, for his is an illness which he cannot help. I had hoped the excuse of ‘after all, he’s just a man’ had gone out of fashion with Tina Turner’s hit song.