Is being "unstuck in time" a gift or a curse? As it did for Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, the inability to lead life in order from beginning to end does present its challenges to Henry, the time traveler and to Clare, his wife.
Our teenager had many more misgivings about this book than I did. And, thinking back on it, I think she's right.
A bit too mushy for me, and it bothered me that the man-woman relationship was based on the traditional beliefs that men are brave adventurers and women stay at home and worry and do housework while they cry and wait for their husbands to return...
BUT. I really liked the fact that Niffenegger took an interesting view on Time, similar to how I've always thought about it. She portrayed Time like a recorded tape, so you could rewind or fast forward (time travel), and each moment would always stay the same, not be totally changed because of your presence, or contain an infinite set of possibilities.
I really enjoyed the book from that perspective, reading about her interesting and unusual theory about what time travel would be like (if it was possible) emotionally for the traveler, and its physical qualities.
For older readers. Their relationship is very heavily based on sex....
Henry suffers from a genetic abnormality that causes him to lurch between present, past, and occasionally the future, when subjected to stress. Whenever he lands in an alternate time, he finds himself naked (lacking even tooth fillings), nauseous, hungry, and disoriented. He quickly realizes that if he is to survive, he must learn how to run fast (in case he materializes, naked, in a crowd), break locks (so he can steal clothes and money), and change the past in only selective ways. Many of his time jumps cause him, his friends, and his family great hardships.
And yet, in this thoughtful book, which resonates with ideas from sources as diverse as Homer's The Odyssey, My Fair Lady, Jules Verne's The Time Machine, Peter Pan and the aforementioned Slaughterhouse 5, among others, time travel has its rewards as well. For one thing, during his trips to the past, Henry is able, Henry Higgins style, to shape Clare, into the wife he'll need when he finally marries her.
So what of the time traveler's wife? What's it like to always be the one left behind, the one who understands less? Well, it was pre-determined that she'd marry Henry, so of course she does. And she knows that often, when Henry is absent from her present, it is because he's visiting with her in the past. And, sometimes, Henry does take advantage of his gift to provide hints to his friends: "Buy Internet stocks." Although the abrupt disappearances are hard on Clare, Henry is often able to say to her, "This will work out in the end, don't worry about it so much now." And Clare does have significant power over Henry. He needs her when he materializes in his past and he needs a comfortable place to return to after his time displacements. She knows some things he does not and she can help him live in the present.
Although it's true that Henry's genetic abnormality is the cause of his death, one could say that it is because they are alive that everyone dies.
The Traveler's Wife is a beautifully written, evocative meditation on the Serenity Prayer and how it applies to those who are severely gifted as well as those who care about them:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference. ...
-- Emily Berk