[Note: this is the second time I am reading this book, so I might be a little biased]
I'm not quite sure how to even begin talking about this book. It's quite possibly one of the most unique and beautiful love stories I have read, and one of the most haunting. I know most people cringe inwardly when they hear a love story praised, immediately picturing cloying schmaltz and cheap little romantic platitudes, but 'The Time Traveler's Wife' is anything but.
The book focuses almost entirely on the two central characters: Henry DeTamble and Claire Abshire. Henry is a time traveler. But this is no fun and amusing condition; for him, it is a disease that he has no control over and more often than not throws him into dangerous and possibly fatal situations. Niffenegger takes an often used science-fiction device and twists it into an entirely (to me, anyway) new concept: Henry is cursed by his "ability", never knowing when he might vanish or where he will reappear. The only thing keeping him from disintegrating entirely is Claire, his wife, whom he meets when she is 20 and he is 28 (though when Claire first meets Henry she is 6 and he is 35) . We learn of Henry and Claire's life together, as her life follows one straight line interrupted every now and then by meeting Henry as he reappears in her life--sometimes he is 34, sometimes 41.Their story is intricate and fascinating; we learn early on that the two will eventually get married, so it is a matter of learning how they came to that point, their love growing and changing, painful and filled with absence and longing.
The story shifts between Henry and Claire's points of views. Niffenegger gives Henry an always urgent, almost frantic voice. Because he cannot control his time traveling and can disappear at almost any time and reappear in an unknown place completely naked and lost, Henry is always on the move, always alert. Niffenegger makes Henry a very complex character; while sometimes he comes off a little unlikeable (certainly so to some of the people around him), he is always sympathetic. There are points when he knows everything that will happen, but more often than not he is thrown into horrible situations, and he rages helplessly, trying only to survive and return to Claire.
Claire could have easily been a weeping wallflower, doing nothing but staying at home waiting for Henry to return. Yet she is written as an incredibly resilient and patient woman; strong for herself but also because Henry needs her to be. She suffers, yes, but she remains always strong and hopeful; she accepts Henry's problem without a second thought, because she believes so strongly in their love, and because they need each other to survive. She is the unshakable and impressive, and she easily became my favorite character. Her family makes for a set of very interesting supporting characters, and the scenes set at her family home are as tense and strange as any family reunion you have ever been to.
Niffenegger is a gifted storyteller. She flows flawlessly through the complicated timeline and draws fascinating characters everywhere; even the supporting players are clearly written and could have great stories of their own. And she understands love. This is hard for me to explain, but Niffenegger writes Henry and Claire's relationship with no embellishments: they have fights and problems, their characters are very different but they compliment each other. Their love is beautiful and touching because it is so real, as extraordinary as their circumstances are. It is one of the most insightful looks at relationships I have ever read. And it made me cry about four times. Claire and Henry's love is so powerful, true, and sad, and told so simply and beautifully, that the writing never comes off as unrealistic or cloying. It's moving without being cheaply sentimental, simply and beautifully written.
'The Time Traveler's Wife' deserves a second read. The shifting timeline might get a little complicated sometimes, so a re-read will help sort out the threads of the story. And, like Henry discovers, knowing everything that is going to happen won't take away any of the magic of living it.